Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is the Cabinet official responsible for implementing the Affordable Care Act. That she would testify before Congress about the problems with the law's implementation makes all the sense in the world, given that it is her responsibility. In certain corners of the conservative media, however, Sebelius' October 30 testimony before the House Energy and Commerce Committee was an act of political cowardice by President Obama, who, by sending Sebelius before Congress, was using her as a "human shield."
Here's the lede to Wall Street Journal columnist Daniel Henninger's October 31 column:
A reader remarked last week that Barack Obama is running out of human shields. With the father of ObamaCare unavailable to explain the greatest fiasco of his presidency to Congress, the American people had to settle Wednesday for his surrogate, Kathleen Sebelius.
And here's Fox News pundit Andrea Tantaros on the October 30 edition of The Five:
Thanks to CBS News' warmed-over and underwhelming reporting, the political world is talking about the 2012 Benghazi attacks again and the litany of "lingering questions" that were answered long ago. And that of course means the emergence of cranks and hucksters who'll try to edge their way into the shrinking Benghazi spotlight and make a few headlines for themselves. Enter Joseph diGenova, attorney for a number of Benghazi "whistleblowers" and established purveyor of fabrications, who appeared on Washington, DC's WMAL on October 28 to claim that "we have reason to believe" that during the response to the Benghazi attack "people were relieved of their duty because they insisted that there be a military response."
This idea that the Obama administration, acting on political considerations, deliberately withheld military assistance from the people under attack in Benghazi is at the core of the conservative obsession with Benghazi, even though there isn't any evidence to substantiate the claim.
DiGenova's specific allegation that people were relieved of duty for trying to order a military response suffers from the reality that a military response was ordered. Here's how Fred Burton and Samuel M. Katz put it in their book on the Benghazi attacks, Under Fire: "Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta ordered that appropriate forces respond. A task order flowed from the Pentagon to NAVSTA Rota, Spain: 'Lean forward and get there as fast as you can.'" As far as the chain of command goes, Leon Panetta was pretty high up (and he was acting on orders from President Obama), so it's not clear who would have been relieved for implementing the orders of the Secretary of Defense.
Nearly two weeks after House Republicans forced a government shutdown, less than a quarter of the country has a positive view of the Republican Party. Seven in ten Americans think the Republicans are putting their political goals ahead of the welfare of the country. The GOP has collapsed in the generic congressional preference, while approval ratings for President Obama and the Affordable Care Act -- the reason government was shut down in the first place -- have gone up. The Republicans sit fractious and rudderless in an historic nadir with no strategy to pull themselves out.
But you wouldn't think that were you to tune into Rush Limbaugh's radio program. On October 10, Limbaugh told his listeners that he had supported the "defund" Obamacare scheme that precipitated the shutdown because its architect, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), could "articulate conservatism." And thus even if the effort didn't actually lead to the defunding of Obamacare, Limbaugh said, it might still be "considered successful even if they don't reach that specific goal." Meanwhile, according to Rush, House Speaker John Boehner was "getting ready to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory" by forestalling a government default and proposing a six-week increase to the debt limit.
That's a neat little encapsulation of why the Republicans are in this mess. The current GOP doldrums are the product of years of political isolation and insulation enabled by a cheerleading conservative media that rewards ideological rigidity and reflexive partisan gainsaying. And for that, conservatives have Rush Limbaugh to thank.
Newly christened Fox News contributor George Will sat down with NPR's Steve Inskeep on the October 9 Morning Edition to educate us all on the subtle governmental intricacies behind the week-old government shutdown and the week-or-so-away debt limit fracture. Leaning on the Founding Fathers, Will gave his stamp of approval to the Republican-led effort to repeal Obamacare and argued against the inviolability of the Affordable Care Act as "the law," observing that "the Fugitive Slave Act was the law, separate but equal was the law, lots of things are the law and then we change them."
Will is right: laws are not sacrosanct and can be altered or thrown out at any time. Obamacare is real-time proof of that -- the Supreme Court upheld the law but ruled that states could not be forced to participate in its expansion of Medicaid. But that's a pedestrian observation made provocative by the out-of-line invocation of segregation and slavery. "Separate but equal" and the Fugitive Slave Act were moral travesties; the ACA helps people buy health insurance. The similarities begin and end with their status as laws. Other laws have been scuttled too -- Prohibition, for example -- but Will chose those two particular laws and in doing so invited a comparison that he can't justify because it's unjustifiable.
And then there's Will's assertion that what we're seeing with the government shutdown and the attendant gridlock over Obamacare is the "Madisonian scheme," the idea that government is "hard to move, it's supposed to be. People look at Washington and say 'oh, this is so difficult.' It's supposed to be difficult."
Again, Will is right that governing and passing legislation is hard work. It was hard work for the Democrats to win majorities in both houses of Congress, and it was hard work for Barack Obama to win the presidency in 2008. Even with those majorities, it was really quite difficult for the president and the Democrats to craft a health care bill and get it through Congress, and they paid a difficult price for it at the ballot box in 2010. Defending the law in front of the Supreme Court was a monumentally difficult task, and even though it emerged, it did not do so unscathed. And then Obama and the Democrats had to go before the electorate again, in 2012, to defend the law, and not only did they succeed, they actually improved their standing in both the House and the Senate.
There's been quite a bit of energy invested by reporters and pundits over the past week figuring out ways in which blame for the Republican-caused government shutdown can be spread around to the Obama administration. Those efforts have culminated in a masterwork of forced equivalence by Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin, who argued that the GOP is to blame for being completely unreasonable, and Obama is to blame because he's not indulging the unreasonableness of the Republicans, which is itself a form of unreasonableness.
Writing on her Washington Post blog at 11:00 a.m. EDT on October 7, Rubin lashed out at Republicans in Congress as a bunch of bumbling clowns who have no strategy for the shutdown or the debt limit fight, and no idea what they hope to extract in concessions from the Obama administration. The party, she wrote, is being needlessly stubborn in its unreasonable demands, is completely in shambles, and risks marginalizing itself so long as it clings to the "delusion" that it is "winning":
So long as Republicans think they are winning the speaker and cooler heads in the Senate will have difficulty putting together a package that could resolve the CR and/or the debt ceiling. Meanwhile, the business community, suburban Republicans and lifelong conservatives shake their head in dismay. This mess and the delusion that one can reach unattainable goals at the country [sic] expense are not why they have supported Republicans. And if the GOP doesn't get a grip, these voters might not do so in the future, or at the very least they might close their wallets to GOP candidates.
Writing on her Washington Post blog at 1:30 p.m. EDT on October 7, Rubin lashed out at President Obama for refusing to negotiate with the Republicans in Congress on the debt ceiling or funding the government (the same Republicans she painted as delusional and unreasonable). According to Rubin, the only reason Obama could have for refusing to negotiate (the fact that their demands are delusional and unreasonable apparently doesn't count) is that he wants the "political obliteration of his political opponents."
President Obama's assertion that he won't negotiate is inexplicable, unless the name of the game here is not a deal or economic survival but political obliteration of his political opponents. After weeks of intense focus on the crisis in Syria, the White House is set to turn to the economy.
The White House will counter that they will negotiate, after the continuing resolution and/or debt-ceiling bills are cleanly passed. But that is a distinction without a difference, and White House staffers know it. In actual war you can demand surrender and then negotiation, but in politics the other side has to survive and, hence, you must avoid making the terms so onerous that they can't be accepted. (Unless you think you are "winning" and the goal is to make the other guys look bad.)
When you want above all else to make the opposition look bad and set them up for failure (which, by the way, means a disaster for the country), then you decide to push them so hard they have to cry uncle. And when they are just as obstinate as you, they refuse to and the hostages suffer the consequences.
The "onerous" term the White House is supposedly imposing is refusing to negotiate on what Rubin herself called irrational and "unattainable" policy goals. Rubin is effectively pushing responsibility for the GOP formulating a coherent strategy onto Obama. She wrote in her first post that the GOP will be lost if it doesn't "get a grip." In her second post she said it's actually Obama's responsibility to make sure the other side "survives." At 11 a.m. she said the GOP was setting itself up for failure. At 1 p.m. she said it's the president who's setting them up for failure.
It doesn't make sense, but it covers both parties in blame, so mission accomplished.
Ask Fox News' Megyn Kelly if she has an opinion and she'll tell you no, she plays it straight. "If you watch O'Reilly, you hear a lot about what Bill O'Reilly thinks," Kelly told the Associated Press regarding her new primetime Fox program, debuting tonight. "Sean Hannity, same thing. But you're not going to hear what I think." This is true to the extent that Megyn Kelly, the longtime star of Fox News' daytime block of "straight news" programming, is not a fulminating champion of "traditional" values like O'Reilly. Nor is she a myna bird for the Republican National Committee like Hannity. In that way she represents a significant departure from the network's last decade of primetime programming -- but toward a direction that actually makes Fox even more dangerous.
Kelly does not breathe fire like her primetime cohorts, but she can be every bit as partisan and misleading. The recent comments from Kelly and from the network are part of a deliberate effort to set her apart from the partisanship and moralism of Hannity and O'Reilly and cast her as a voice of factual authority. Anyone who's watched enough of Kelly's news programming knows how insidious a message that is. And, unfortunately, it appears to be working.
People who think this is unfair to Kelly will likely bring up her election night dismantling of Karl Rove as he sputtered objections to the network calling Ohio for President Obama. Or her rebukes of Erick Erickson and Lou Dobbs for their antiquated views of women in the workplace. And Kelly was absolutely right to take on her colleagues in those instances. It should be noted, though, that these moments are made possible by the fact that the network won't actually punish her colleagues for unguarded crassness or factually dubious partisanship. Fox News will keep paying Rove for being embarrassingly wrong and Erickson for being a sexist oaf, which means Kelly won't lack for opportunities to make headlines by imposing some basic decency on her coworkers.
But for each of those moments, there is an example of Megyn Kelly wielding her journalistic authority to prop up transparent nonsense as "news." Remember the ridiculous New Black Panther story? One of the big reasons you know about it is because Kelly made the story her own, elevating the profile of the extremist fringe group and devoting hours of airtime to the absurd allegation that it was under the protection of Obama Justice Department because that conspiracy theory comported with conservative resentment of the administration (and because it made for entertaining television). Her facts were often wrong, and the story ended up going nowhere because there was nothing to it.
The government is still shut down owing to Republican intransigence over the Affordable Care Act, and reporters are still groping about for reasons to redistribute blame for the paralyzing gridlock away from the GOP and onto President Obama. National Journal political correspondent Beth Reinhard gets in on the fun, writing that the shutdown shows that "Obama's biggest failing has been his inability to build relationships and make deals on Capitol Hill." To build her case, she quotes four Republicans -- Romney campaign flack Kevin Madden, lobbyist Charlie Black, pollster Vin Weber, and former Sen. Norm Coleman -- all of whom argue, in obvious good faith, that the president just hasn't done enough to accommodate Republicans.
That's a tough argument to sell, given that immediately after Obama's first inauguration congressional Republicans devised a strategy to reflexively oppose all of Obama's economic policies, and immediately after his second inauguration they agreed to boycott direct negotiations with Obama. But let's focus on one of the Republicans the National Journal cites, Charlie Black, and his complaint that Obama refused to negotiate during the 2012 "fiscal cliff" stand-off, as it highlights just how weak the "Obama can't make deals" argument is.
Here's what Black told the National Journal:
Longtime lobbyist Charlie Black noted that it was Vice President Joe Biden who reached a last-minute agreement with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff at the start of this year.
"The president wasted 17 months, and in one weekend the old pros made a deal," Black said. "All the president knows how to do is campaign and attack."
It's true that McConnell and Biden ended up hammering out the final fiscal cliff compromise. Left unsaid is why the final deal was left to McConnell and Biden -- because John Boehner rebuffed Barack Obama's attempts to negotiate on taxes and threw the entire process into chaos.
Here's a quick synopsis of George Will's last five columns for the Washington Post: bemoaning the politicization of the Federal Reserve Board; tracing the history of isolationism; counseling Republicans to let Obamacare stumble on its own; inveighing against college football's corruption and lawlessness; and examining the legacy of the Bay of Pigs invasion. In those five columns, Will cited a proposed constitutional amendment from 1938, used the phrases "semantic infiltration" and "perverse fecundity," and quoted Ernest Hemingway and H.L. Mencken. He has degrees from Oxford and got his Ph.D from Princeton.
All this to say that George Will is a brainy fellow who enjoys a broad array of scholarly pursuits and has a long-running reputation as a public intellectual. And that's why it's kind of baffling that he's joining Fox News.
To be clear, Will's conservative politics and his counterfactual denialism of climate change fit the Murdoch network hand-in-glove. And he's an old, white conservative man joining what is basically the ongoing televised celebration of old, white conservative men. But the barking partisanship of Fox News and its crude appeals to cultural resentment don't mesh with Will's style of commentary and analysis. You look at George Will, in all his carefully cultivated patrician nerdiness, and the Fox News environment just seems wrong for him. He revels in elitism, whereas Fox News sops to Tea Party anger. Being associated with that does nothing for the George Will "brand," if that's the right word for it. In fact, it probably hurts it.
The mania for false equivalence and the pox-on-both-houses reflex among media types are in full effect now that government operations have shut down and people are looking for someone to blame. It's so strong, in fact, that reporters and pundits who recognize the hopeless and irresponsible intransigence of congressional Republicans nonetheless lay an equal (or perhaps greater) measure of blame at the feet of the president for failing to wheedle and cajole people who won't be wheedled or cajoled. It makes little sense, but sacrifices must be made when trying to force objectivity or, in the case of the Wall Street Journal editorial board, frantically deflect blame from the GOP.
Just this morning, during a segment on who to blame for the government shut down, CNN's Ashleigh Banfield hotly objected to Democratic strategist Paul Begala's accusation of false equivalence, arguing that she was just as hard on Democrats as she was on Republicans -- which was precisely Begala's point:
But what of this argument that Obama could end this stand-off with the Republicans in Congress and get the government back up and running if he would just try to compromise? It's a bad argument on the merits, since Republicans aren't actually seeking a compromise: they're trying to force Obama into giving ground while they give up nothing, as they already support funding the government. But even if Obama did try to negotiate, that's no guarantee the House Republicans would respond rationally. We know this because the one of the last times Obama negotiated with Republicans during a fiscal crisis, the so-called "fiscal cliff," he offered real concessions and compromises and John Boehner and the House Republicans still refused to work with him.
Let's stipulate that there isn't actually a disagreement between Republicans and Democrats over whether to fund the government beyond 11:59:59 p.m. on September 30. Both sides want government operations to continue, which is why both sides have put forward spending bills to pay for government operations. The sticking point is the Republican insistence that government funding be paired with delays or outright defunding of the Affordable Care Act ("Obamacare"), which has been the law for three years now and survived both a Supreme Court challenge and a presidential election.
The Wall Street Journal editorial board, taking measure of this toxic political dynamic, recognizes that congressional Republicans, led (in both houses) by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), are pursuing a strategy that is unlikely to succeed, politically dangerous, and contrary to the will of American voters. And yet, they lay an equal measure of blame for the looming shutdown on President Obama, explaining that it's the president's fault for not negotiating with the GOP.
From the Journal's September 30 editorial, headline "An Obama-Cruz Shutdown":
We've criticized GOP Senator Ted Cruz for his strategy to make defunding ObamaCare a requirement of funding the rest of government. He and his allies know that Mr. Obama can never agree to that, and even millions of Americans who oppose ObamaCare don't agree with his shutdown ultimatum. It risks political damage for the House and Senate GOP in 2014 even as Mr. Cruz builds his email list for 2016.
Yet it takes two to tangle, and Mr. Obama is as much to blame for the partisan pileup as Mr. Cruz. This is a President who is eager to negotiate with dubiously elected Iranian mullahs but can't abide compromise with duly elected leaders of Congress. He refuses to negotiate at all over an increase in the federal debt limit, claiming this has never happened. Like so much that Mr. Obama says, he knows this is false. His own staff suggested the spending sequester during the 2011 debt debate, and Democratic Congresses have used the debt limit to extract concessions from Republican Presidents.