Friday, July 29, 2011

A Debt Ceiling Primer

Sorry updates have been slow this week. House guests don't find speechwriting very entertaining! Here are some reads for the debt ceiling debate.:

Happy friday everyone. There will be a new post soon- assuming there's still a United States government to write about.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

A Tale of Two Speeches

President Obama and John Boehner each had their chance to talk to the American people last night about the debt ceiling crisis. They each gave their interpretation of the problem and their account of what's happened so far. So how did they do? What do the two speeches say about their positions?

I think the President gave a pretty fair explanation of what the debt ceiling is and how we got to this position. He mentioned the surplus that President Clinton left and placed the deficit blame squarely where it belongs, but without dwelling on the past. After introducing the debt ceiling he talked about what the Republicans in the House voted to cut and the tax cuts they chose not to remove. What he didn't mention was that the whole proposal was contingent on Congress passing the Balanced Budget Amendment and he probably missed an opportunity there.

When you hear people say that Obama has a messaging problem I think this is exactly what they mean. The majority of what the Republicans passed just amounted to bad cuts- the Balanced Budget Amendment is where they got aboard the bus to crazy town. Maybe the President thought people would agree with the sentiment of the amendment's name and not bother to understand its contents, but this was his speech and he had the opportunity to explain things as he sees them. For probably a majority of Americans this would have been the first they had heard of this particular "balanced budget amendment". He could have been the one that introduced it to them- without even using its GOP branded name- and explained how this country would be shackled in times of crisis.

"And Republicans made all of this contingent on Congress approving a change to the Constitution that would take future budget decisions out of the hands of the people. It would hinder all government actions indiscriminately and in times of emergency it would be downright dangerous. If this amendment had been in place the United States couldn't have spent the money it needed to fight World War Two."

Instead of explaining the amendment on his terms and using it to make Republicans look unreasonable he let John Boehner introduce it on his own terms.

Other than that the speech was fine; he did a good job explaining the problem without sounding "professorial" (which cable news seems to think is a big deal) and he sounded reasonable. I liked his sly list of  Presidents that supported a balanced approach to the budget process- Reagan, George H.W Bush, Clinton... I do wonder if he should have explicitly mentioned his campaign pledge when hr talked about taxes not increasing on those making less than $250,000 a year. On the one hand it was a chance to remind people that their taxes aren't higher and about this idea of his they supported in 2008. However, he may have decided that talking about a campaign wasn't Presidential or that it would be too partisan.

After the Presidnet was done, John Boehner spoke with a much different agenda. He didn't care to explain anything and made it seem like it shouldn't even need explaining. He had a real "there's a new sheriff in town" attitude about him, which I'm sure his party liked.

That was the real difference between these two speeches. The President was speaking to the country; the Speaker was addressing those who agree with him. Despite a couple of good lines like "the bigger the government the smaller the people," Boehner lacked the finesse Republicans usually have. His party has made an art out of saying something a wide audience might find reasonable while still giving nods to the desires of their die-hard supporters.

Any chance he had of appealing to the American people was severely deflated when he began his attacks on the President. Obama is still very popular in this country in spite of his lackluster job approval (in fact, that's the only reason his numbers are as high as they are). Boehner tried painting the Presidnet as demanding and unreasonable which doesn't fit with his image. He arguably even lumped the President in with "some politicians" worried about reelection. I think a lot of people might have stopped listening at that point. It gave the impression that Boehner was "just another politician," even though his words begged the audience to believe the opposite.

I think this gets at the heart of it: one of these speakers knows they are going to have to lead a party that didn't get what it wanted. The other is the President of the United States.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Talking Points for Liberal Democrats on the Debt Ceiling

As Nate Silver pointed out earlier today, John Boehner is at a make or break moment in the debt ceiling negotiations. He has unveiled his proposal to cut spending without any revenue increases and to raise the ceiling in two increments (crossing both of the President's lines in the sand). Now it's critical for him to get this through the House, because if he can't even do that it becomes obvious he will need Democratic votes and he'll have significantly less bargaining power.

A swarm of liberal Democratic House members need to take to the airwaves and make a case for their ideas. With somewhere between 40-60 GOP members being on record as not supporting any debt ceiling increase whatsoever, it seems likely that Nancy Pelosi has a hand to play here.

Here's some of what they should say:
  • Not a single Democrat will vote for the Speaker's plan. It will fail in the Senate and the President indicated he would veto a bill like this. It's a partisan team building exercise, not a serious proposal. Serious proposals don't get announced on the Rush Limbaugh show.
  • Republicans voted in April to gut Medicare. This latest proposal just shows they continue to place tax cuts for the wealthy and breaks on corporate jets before Medicare spending for the elderly
  • As many as 60 GOP members in the house have indicated they will never vote to increase the debt limit, no matter what the proposal. These are people who questioned newspaper reports of the Presidents birth and the word of the military concerning bin Laden's death. They could hear that a tornado was coming straight for their house, shake their heads and say "the liberal media's at it again." The Speaker will need some more level-headed thinkers; namely, Democrats.
  • While failing to raise the debt ceiling would be catastrophic, we aren't worried. Have you ever known the GOP to support a policy that would cost the richest Americans money? I'm confident when the hedge fund managers tell their Republican supporters how much they stand to lose, you'll see a renewed eagerness for bipartisanship.
If this is done right, Nancy Pelosi could be the hero of this story.

    Friday, July 22, 2011

    Convincing liberals to change Social Security or Medicare

    Things have been moving very quickly in the debt ceiling negotiations and the latest rumors are that John Boehner and President Obama are revisiting a "grand plan" that includes changes in Social Security and Medicare. Liberal groups are outraged at the mere suggestion of this. Fundraising "bundlers" are signing pledges promising to not raise money for Obama's reelection if either program is touched, and there's the usual talk of voting for a third party in November.

    All of this is premature. Nothing has been agreed upon (or at the very least written down), and we have no idea what's been discussed or even if the President is genuine in his efforts. However, there are some things genuinely worth changing to Social Security and Medicare that wouldn't affect the usefulness of the programs. If the President were seriously going to suggest making changes, here's how he might want to do it:

    "To my own party I say, don't let politics get in the way of good policy and don't oppose a measure just because it has some support across the aisle. These programs [Medicare and Social Security] provide an invaluable safety net for all Americans, but nobody would claim they are not without their flaws. I believe there are changes to be made that are consistent with our ideals and they shouldn't be rejected without proper consideration.

    Why, for example,  should Social Security be funded with a regressive tax which forces lower income Americans to pay a higher percentage of their salary? If it were changed to a flat or even a progressive tax system it would bring in trillions of dollarsin additional revenue. What if the percentage of benefits subject to income tax varied by a person's net worth, with 100% of benefits being taxed at the top of the scale? That could result in both more help for the people that need it most and improved solvency for the long term.

    When we were working to pass the Affordable Care Act, our goal was not just to extend coverage to uninsured Americans, but also to try reigning in spiraling healthcare costs. I don't know what's changed between then and now.

    The United States' government provides health coverage for more Americans than any private insurance company, but you wouldn't know it from how we bargain with providers. Private companies use their huge buying power as leverage to negotiate lower rates, but they answer to a board of directors rather than the US Congress. We can make care more affordable, but it won't work if we have people who are willing to use scare tactics with the American people to score political points. 

    I believe we can continue providing the same coverage for less money. I think we can make Social Security solvent without reducing checks to recipients by one dollar. Take a look at the proposals and I think you'll find that we've seized this opportunity to make changes that won't just reduce the deficit, but will also move this country forward. I don't know why you would oppose that."

    Thursday, July 21, 2011

    A Plea for Education Reform for Governor Deval Patrick

    Click here for my notes on this speech.


    Almost one year ago I stood before an audience here at the State House and had the pleasure to announce Massachusetts’ successful placement in the federal “Race to the Top” program. This competition was set up by the Obama administration at the beginning of his presidency to seek out and reward states that showed initiative and innovation in public education. Over the course of the program we worked hard to compete by reexamining our standards and protocols, and at the end of the program Massachusetts had scored higher than every other state in the nation. We established ourselves as national leaders in education through our willingness to reject the status-quo and put children first. It’s that spirit of leadership and pursuit of selfless goals that I came to talk about today. We won that competition and should be proud of our achievements, but we still have a lot of work to do before our students in Massachusetts have all the opportunities they deserve.

    That quarter of a billion dollars of federal prize money went directly into our schools. Specifically, it went towards solving a problem that has plagued our state for decades. The phrase “achievement gap” gets used so often by politicians that you might forget the seriousness of what it refers to. It’s the name we give to the students we are failing; the gap between what different social and ethnic groups should be achieving and reality. Studies show time and time again that students from high income families attend school districts with better teachers, smaller class sizes, and better facilities, and that gets reflected in their test scores. No child in our state should ever be at a disadvantage because of where they were born or who their parents are, but unfortunately those are problems we face. The dropout rate for Hispanic students in our state is 26.5%. That’s more than four times the rate for other students. The rate for low income students is 22%- twice the average. There is no debate, these numbers represent an inequality that is totally unacceptable in Massachusetts and must be solved.

    Notes on "A Plea for Education Reform for Governor Deval Patrick"

    This was the first speech I wanted to write for this site, but I thought that the issue is so important that my first draft several months ago simply wasn't good enough.

    A decline in our nation's public schools might not have caused the many problems we face now, but there's no question that today it's contributing to them. There's been a feedback loop taking place for at least two generations now between those not properly educated and politicians who cater to them, demonize "elitism", and further de-fund schools. Things have gotten so out of control in the past few years that now we don't just have politicians who are catering to these feelings- now we have the true believers in power. People whose policy positions are more a matter of belief and faith than research and applied logic. People who, if they were comforted by thinking the sky way green, could never be persuaded otherwise by any amount of facts you present them.

    Poor education is why America has taken no action on global warming. The lack of financial knowledge and curiosity is partly to blame for the sub-prime crash (go ahead: ask a college freshman what an ARM is). It's why it was so easy to lead us into war with Iraq. It's the reason that on August 2nd the U.S. might face a debt default, causing a completely preventable global financial meltdown. To be a little more concise: it is not the reason we have disagreements in our politics, but it is ultimately the force keeping us from being able to agree on even the most basic of facts.

    We need a big push for better education now. Like I say in the speech, education reform takes 15-20 years to make its impact. That's a long time to be paying in the hopes that one day you'll get your money's worth. But to lift a line from the President, "if not now, when?" It's better that we see results in 2031 than 2036 or 2041. And, assuming no pressure ever comes from the federal level to reform schools, it will take one or two states sticking their toes in the water and seeing results before the other states follow suit. We could be halfway through this century before the message gets through. Let's hope that we can hold out until then, because at this rate I'm not sure.

    Sunday, July 17, 2011

    What Illinois Governor Pat Quinn needs to say to Catholic adoption agencies

    Last month, a new law went into effect in Illinois that legalized civil-unions between same sex partners and granted them the same legal rights as ‘traditional’ marriages. The bill lists some of the legal protections these new couples will have, including the same right to adoption services that married couples currently have. However, some Catholic adoption organizations are still refusing to help same-sex couples and are in violation of the new law. This has forced Governor Pat Quinn to not renew the state foster care and adoption contracts held by some these groups, and they have struck back with lawsuits saying that adoption is “part of [their] church’s mission,” and they should be exempt from the provision.

    Canceling these contracts was the right thing for the governor to do, but the next time he’s asked about these groups he should have a solid response prepared. The last time he responded to a question about these groups he said, “They made a choice... they have a law in Illinois. It’s the civil unions law. I signed it into law. We’re not going back.”

    Instead, I think he should say something more similar to this:

    “I respect the right of people in these organizations to believe what they want about homosexuality. They have that first amendment protection. But I reject the argument that this religious freedom automatically grants these groups the privilege of running adoption services, or that the state of Illinois can’t impose guidelines on what activities we are willing to fund. These groups will have to make a decision about which they believe to be a greater threat to their morality: same-sex couples raising children, or children growing up without homes.

    If we change the subject of this discrimination to any other protected class, the absurdity and prejudice motivating this legal challenge is readily apparent. What if a group said that they wouldn’t allow black families to adopt? Or naturalized citizens? Or, what if someone said that their religion forced them to use state money to discriminate against Catholics? I think if that were the discussion, some of these groups would find themselves opposing the arguments they make today.

    I ask the members of these groups to think about the children they mean to help. Different studies say that up to 10% of these children will at some point realize they are attracted to people of their same sex. Is an organization that believes homosexuals should be treated as second class citizens really a loving and nurturing place for these children? Will you really be able to turn them away when they come back to the agency as adults trying to adopt, without feeling the slightest bit of shame? Maybe the people of these groups can honestly answer yes to both of these questions, but my administration and the state of Illinois cannot.

    We will continue to enforce this new law, which specifically says civil-union partners are entitled to all of the same adoption services as married heterosexual couples. It will take another law passed by the legislature- which I would not support nor sign- to change my position on the matter.”

    Friday, July 15, 2011

    Notes on "An Announcement for Andrew Cuomo on Hyrdaulic Fracturing"

    For Andrew Cuomo I think the answer to the hydrofracking issue comes down to this: I am not a scientist. You’re probably not a scientist. These people are the experts we chose to advise us on this matter, but the public largely doesn’t accept their findings. So, let’s send it back to a new group scientists. Eventually there will probably be a solution that makes drilling safe and then we will need to make sure that solution is properly enforced.

    Originally I was going to have Cuomo call for a doubling of the areas around drinking sources where drilling would be prohibited. That makes sense, would be supported by the public, and appeals to a desire for cautiousness. The thinking goes that if 500 feet is probably safe, then 1,000 feet is definitely safe. But the moment you talk about modifying that specific regulation you set yourself up as the final arbiter of every recommendation made by scientists. The most useful regulatory powers aren’t specified by lawmakers, but are rather broad tools handed to an agency along with a powerful mandate. This also happens to be easier to support politically.

    The risks of just lifting the moratorium are too great for the governor. The people who feel strongly about this issue are overwhelmingly against it. He needs to address their concerns and persuade those who can be persuaded. Being tough on the drilling corporations is an extremely good way to begin gaining the trust of these groups. At the end of the day he needs to make it abundantly clear that the state has given this subject the full time and consideration it deserves, and something like this is how you do that.

    Thanks to Dan Barbato for his advice on this topic!

    An Announcement for Andrew Cuomo on Hyrdaulic Fracturing

    Click here for my notes on this speech.

    In late June, the Department of Environmental Conservation released a report recommending guidelines for the safe drilling of natural gas in New York. When writing this proposal the paramount concerns of the agency were the health and well-being of all New Yorkers, as well as the safeguarding of their lakes, forests, and streams. I have complete confidence in the Department. I trust them with the safety of my family and neighbors and have no reason to doubt their impartiality or intentions.

    However, this report has quite understandably provoked strong feelings among the people in our state. They have made those feelings known with their phone calls, petitions, and rallies. They have written letters and performed in exactly the manner prescribed by our democracy. The issue for our state government today is not whether the DEC has made a proposal that will properly guard our drinking water. They are the experts we rely on; the Senate and Assembly are filled with politicians, not geologists and ecologists. The issue for us is whether this proposal has the full confidence of New Yorkers and whether the public thinks drilling is prudent. It’s clear they are unconvinced. No matter what happens in the scientific debate it is our duty to listen to the people that have entrusted in us the guardianship of their environment and their natural resources.

    Wednesday, July 13, 2011

    What Michele Bachmann should say if she wants to be President

    Let me preface this like I did my post on Mitt Romney: I, like most Americans, definitely don't want to see a Bachmann presidency. However, I'd happy accept her as the GOP nominee, and think she could be to the United States what Christine O'Donnell was to Deleware.

    If she wants to become President, during the next debate I think she should make a statement to this effect:
    "In the past six years, we've gone through three 'change' elections and the leaders of the House and Senate haven't changed through any of them. Last year, in the midst of a ground-swell movement aimed at returning us to our founding principles, we were told that Tea Party activists could trust the Republican party to do what was necessary to solve the out-of-control government spending and stop the growth of our national debt. Then when it came time to turn words into action we had one GOP leader suggest we actually give Barack Obama more power so he could raise the debt whenever he wanted, and another that agreed to the end of the Bush tax cuts and a host of other job-killing tax hikes. That's not what we voted for, and it's not what the American people want! It's time that we give real change a try!"
    My advice to Bachmann is the same as my advice to Mitt Romney: she should play to her strengths, which lay with the Tea Party activists and her image as an independent figure. I don't think she has much of a chance of ever convincing the GOP leadership that she's the most capable candidate of beating President Obama. They're probably doing what they can to defeat her already. And the faction that backs her is going to be furious if the Mitch McConnell compromise is passed ( it looks like it will). They firmly believe that the country wouldn't be damaged if the debt ceiling wasn't raised, and that it would even prosper. They'll feel betrayed; the Republican party humored them to get their votes, with no intention of following through on their issues. They'll be right on the latter point, and delusional on the former.

    Monday, July 11, 2011

    Notes on "A Presidential Address on the Debt Ceiling Negotiations"

    I began writing this on Friday just after hearing the terrible jobs report. The reaction at xpostfactoid was to wonder "Good God, is this the day the Obama presidency died?" I don't know that it died, but it's been made clear that it's in jeopardy. It's time for Obama to go back to the themes of his campaign and show some vulnerability and honesty. The unemployment report really emphasizes the danger of a second recession and should be a wake-up call to everyone involved in the debt ceiling negotiations. It is an opportunity to re-frame the debate and revisit the question of how wise massive spending cuts really are. Of course by late afternoon Eric Cantor said that it was a sign that the deficit had to be reduced solely through spending cuts, so... so much for that.

    I wrote this speech realizing that there are a lot of unknowns. Depending on the progress of private negotiations these statements might not make sense to deliver. There's definitely room left in the speech to talk about Medicare and Social Security, either to defend cuts or reject them. The real goal I had was to try shifting the debate. We're hearing a lot of back and forth, without the focus on jobs either party should have. I made the point in a comment on another xpostfactoid post, that Obama's accepted the premise that resolving the deficit is the most important issue. It's not- he should never talk about anything besides the economy and jobs. He's being goaded by Congress, but he's not going to be running against Congress in 2012. Mitt Romney's visiting factories where Obama heralded the stimulus package, and which has since been closed down. The crowds like that don't care about deficits.

    A few specifics on the speech itself: I replaced "deficit reduction" and similar phrases with "government spending" when talking about negotiations thus far. The Republicans are refusing to talk about revenue; they don't really care about the deficit (as should be obvious from Boehner walking away from a large deal in favor of a small one), they care about crippling government. Government spending creates jobs and contributes to the GDP, so I think the distinction is important. Also, he shouldn't give this speech alone from the Oval Office or the East Wing. He needs a crowd. Originally I wrote it with a joint session of Congress in mind, but nixed that idea (don't need the potential for any "you lie" nonsense overshadowing the speech). So probably something more like the news conference setting of today's remarks.

    A Presidential Address on the Debt Ceiling Negotiations

    Good evening,

    Over the past few months our nation and our leaders in government have been involved in monumental negotiations over the Federal budget, the statutory limits on our public debt, and in some ways, the fundamental principles of the country itself. These are all vital discussions. They have inspired a torrent of activism from both of our major parties and have taken such a powerful hold over our national conversation that there has been room for little else.

    In some ways these debates have taken the recovery from one of our greatest financial disasters for granted. Economic indicators early this year showed signs of promise. In March an earthquake pushed Japan- the world’s third largest economy- back into a recession. That disaster as well as conflict in the Middle East made it easy to dismiss a poor jobs report in May as having been outside our control. Today, however, new unemployment figures from the Labor Department confirm to us the harsh reality that our economic recovery is in peril. During a month in which economists predicted 125,000 new jobs, only 18,000 ultimately were created. That is less than the growth in population, and actually resulted in an increase in the unemployment rate. No matter what the cause this report cannot go ignored.

    Wednesday, July 6, 2011

    Notes on the "Remarks on the Minnesota shutdown for Sen. Al Franken"

    First of all, it is obvious that the drama in Minnesota is heightened by the budget talks at the Federal level. However, everyone speaking to Minnesotans must be aware of the important differences between these two situations and make an effort not to simplify or diminish the unique issues of the state by going overboard with the idea that this is a warmup act to the debt ceiling negotiation. It's not- this is the state's second shutdown in six years and the budget has been an issue for more than a decade.

    Still, there's no denying that the outcome of this dispute will be heralded by the cable news networks as an indicator of what might happen between the President and Congress. Through their 24/7 repetition, it might end up reinforcing one of these competing narratives; either that big government cuts are still as important to the people as they were in November, or that people think these new GOP leaders are being irresponsible with the economy and are unbalanced in their approach to deficits. Similarly, this outcome will have a big impact on the Republican presidential nomination, with Tim Pawlenty's term as governor setting the stage for this whole mess. It's shining a light on claims he's made which have so far gone unchecked (and which turn out to not really be true).

    I wrote the speech for Al Frankin, as he's a high profile politician, and is one of the few leaders with a genuine reason to talk both about the state's budget, and about the Federal debt ceiling. While I think it needs to be done subtly, someone should be trying to invigorate supporters with the argument that "the whole country is paying attention, and what we do could potentially help the President."

    As far as specific lines in the speech go, I thought it was important in the first paragraph for Frankin to preempt the attack that he's not in Washington D.C. during a legislative crisis. The truth of course is that Al Frankin isn't in the room with the President, the Speaker, and the Majority Leader, and that he's not going to have a lot to do with the negotiations. I think it would be good to for him to say that the Senate leader wants Minnesota to set an example for the country, and although it wouldn't stop the attack, his reelection is so far away it wouldn't be remembered. Also, in the second paragraph I thought it was good to echo Gov. Dayton's line about the Republican demands amounting to "more debt". Obviously the way talking points stick is by repetition, and it's important to brand the Republicans as using deceptive accounting tricks.

    Remarks on the Minnesota shutdown for Sen. Al Franken

    Hello, and thank you for welcoming me here today. We stand in the shadow of a state capitol that has shut down; where work has ground to a halt because of the unwillingness of Republicans to negotiate in good faith. This state faces challenges as severe as any we have faced before, and just like their allies on the national level, these lawmakers would rather watch the whole system burn to the ground than accept a proposal that has even a hint of bipartisanship. As we speak, the President is involved in his own around the clock negotiations, trying to build a compromise that will raise the federal debt ceiling and prevent another economic collapse. I intend to continue voicing Minnesota’s concerns in Washington, and during this brief time that I’m away from the Capitol I am in constant touch with my office. In fact, I just finished speaking with Majority Leader Reid who discussed with me this latest round of talks. He told me there’s more work ahead, but he’s sure an agreement can be made, and that he looks forward to Minnesota setting an example for the country by showing that citizens are willing to stand up for what is fair and right, and that means a balanced approach to balanced budgets!

    Friday, July 1, 2011

    A 30 Second DNC Ad on the Debt Ceiling


    A WOMAN is sitting down at the kitchen table: bills and opened envelopes scattered around her. She is writing a letter.

    WOMAN (V.O.):

    Dear Mastercard: I have received your letters, and while we are grateful for the credit you've extended to us, we unfortunately will not be able to make our payment this month. My husband refuses to agree to an increase in our debt ceiling, and paying you would put us over our currently authorized amount. I hope this doesn't affect your willingness to let us borrow from you in the future...


    You wouldn't do this with your bills. Tell your Congressman to stop playing politics with our country's finances.