Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Ron Johnson Among Underwear Gnomes

Our man in Wausau, Rob Mentzer, pointed to this article in National Review tonight, which details Senator Ron Johnson's secret plan for ending the government shut-down stalemate and, boy, is it a doozy.

In the spirit of robust debate, we're going to vociferously disagree with Mentzer's assessment of Johnson's strategic maneuvering. In fact, I thought it was so absurd, so rife with blatantly obvious holes that I was convinced that Johnson had outsourced his political operation in Washington to the Underwear Gnomes from a rather memorable episode of South Park. Allow me to jog your memory:

Fair warning, this post is gonna be messy, unedited, and absent copious links I prefer to litter our work. Maybe I'll come back and fix it up. Maybe not. We're shooting from the hip here at The Chief tonight.

First of all, here's some background. Johnson did not enjoy a particularly good shut-down. At one point during the fiasco he reportedly lost his temper at Ted Cruz in closed door meeting with other GOP senators. This led to a stinging rebuke by Erik Eriksson, the RedState.com editor whom has some measure fo influence among conservatives for some reason, who called Johnson a "liar." (With friends like these...) Then Johnson capped off Shut-Down '13 with a really weird interview with Marc Levin which recalled the hey-day of the "awkward silence" sit-com fare c. 2005.

It was during this last interview that Levin gave Johnson the business for not appearing to support Ted Cruz enough in public. Here's the exchange:

“Let me tell you something, senator, because I have to go,” Levin said. “Senator, let me tell you something — if
46 of you people, you Republican senators had stood up shoulder-to-shoulder during the filibuster and made it quite damn clear to Harry Reid and the whole world that you were shoulder-to-shoulder, Republican-to-Republican,then the outcome might have been slightly different.”
At the end of the appearance, the two swapped words about the so-called Johnson strategy, which has yet to be determined in its entirety.“I guess we’ll have to follow the Ron Johnson strategy,” Levin said. “When you figure it out, send it to me, will you?”
“When you figure it out, send it to me,” Johnson shot back.

Got that? Levin's implication is, of course, that Johnson didn't actually have a strategy. He basically accused the Senator of lying to him. Johnson strange, snippy retort -- "When you figure it [i.e. the Johnson Strategy] out, send it to me" -- almost seems to give credence to Levin's accusation.

But today we found out that there was actually a Johnson Plan ... one that was written down on paper and everything. And here it is: 

Step One, according to the document: The House passes a six-month continuing resolution. Attached to the CR is a one-year delay of Obamacare’s individual mandate and a one-year delay of the employer mandate, which President Obama later unilaterally suspended; a bill from the chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee, James Lankford of Oklahoma, to keep the government from shutting down in the event the funding laws expire; a bill from Representative Tom McClintock of California to give top priority to debt payments in order to avoid default amid a stalemate over the debt ceiling; and, finally, the so-called “Vitter amendment,” proposed by Senator David Vitter of Louisiana, to end a federal subsidy to congressional lawmakers and staff for purchasing their health care on the Obamacare exchanges. 
Johnson and others supporting the strategy pushed hard for action on the first step in July, before Congress had departed for its August recess, which would have allowed Republicans to spend the month at home beating the messaging war drum. 
Step Two: Harry Reid rejects the plan and passes a CR without any of the attached policies. 
Step Three: Coming back from the August recess, Republicans make what Johnson calls a “strategic retreat.” We’ve heard the Democrats, the GOP lawmakers would say: They won’t touch Obamacare, so we’re removing the demands to delay the individual and employer mandates. The Republicans would cast their position as trying to prevent a government shutdown, prevent default on the debt, and remove a special perk for Congress.

Now, I know it's easy to criticize the best-made plans of mice and men in retrospect, but it's not difficult to see 
why this plan seemingly got zero traction in Washington: it's patently absurd.

Step 1 has several elements. 1.) Six months worth of continued government funding; 2.) One year Obamacare individual mandate delay; 3.) one year employer mandate delay; 4.) the Langford Bill; 5.) the McClintock bill and 6.) the Vitter Bill.

Elements 1 was not long enough for Dems. They were tired of republicans using the threat of a government shut down to get their way. Elements 2 and were non-starters because it gave the GOP a window in which to take over the Senate after the 2014 midterm elections. The Langford Bill is asinine. The least problematic aspect of the McClintock bill was that many people viewed it as being logistically impossible. The Vitter Bill was shallow posturing, at best.

Dems weren't going to give into any of these, but if you're a GOP Senator who wants to prioritize them in order of importance, then you're going to want fight hardest for the delay because it gives you best possible opportunity for dismantling Obamacare legislatively after a potential Senate take over in 2014 whilst providing you with a massive issue to campaign on between now and then.

As we'll see in Step 3 the delay was the very thing Johnson was willing to abandon first. Again, this would have been a catastrophic.

Step 2 reveals just how absurd this plan is because if presumes a very compliant opposition Leader, which Harry is not.

Johnson's entire strategy pivots around Senator Harry Reid stripping the amendments of a continuing resolution passed by the House and eventually suffering the consequences of an angry electorate, whom Republicans demonize for removing "fiscally responsible" measures from the CR. The problem with this is that, depending on how Reid would have ushered the CR through the Senate, the CR would have gone to committee where it would a.) have stalled and b.) become both parties' albatross, but at least given Democrats the opportunity to paint the House GOP as intransigent. You bet your sweet ass Harry Reid would have found a way to put this ball back into the House GOP's court.

So right away, Johnson's plan is DOA.   

Step 2  is a piece of work since it depends entirely on circumstances Republicans would have absolutely no control over whatsoever. None. Zero. Zilch. Nada. Zip. To assume that the opposition party leader is just going to compliantly go along with your plan of his own volition is preposterous. What if Reid delayed passing the CR until after the August break. Johnson's plan falls apart because the GOP misses a crucial consciously communicate with it's base. It's just too much to expect that Harry Reid, unwittingly or otherwise, would have gone along with Johnson's plan. It's just too important to leave in someone else's hands -- the grand question mark in the Underwear Gnomes unified theory of profit. 

Step 3, however, is where Johnson really brings the crazy. Take a look at this carefully:

Coming back from the August recess, Republicans make what Johnson calls a “strategic retreat.” 

Retreats, strategic or not, don't really seem to resonate with Republicans these days, so right off the bat John's plan suffers from an almost fatal marketing deficiency.

We’ve heard the Democrats, the GOP lawmakers would say: They won’t touch Obamacare, so we’re removing the demands to delay the individual and employer mandates. 

And here's Johnson giving up the most valuable bargaining chip in the GOP's pile, as noted above.

But here's the best part:

The Republicans would cast their position as trying to prevent a government shutdown, prevent default on the debt, and remove a special perk for Congress.

Except the GOP base wanted a government shutdown and they wanted a default! Also, the Langford Bill actually incentivizes government shutdowns and the McClintock bill -- at least in principle -- makes debt limit breaches more likely. It would be like an arsonist standing next to a burning house, torch in hand, claiming that he was burning the house down so that that he wouldn't be able to burn the house down.

There's a reason why Johnson can't seem to drop any names of colleagues who signed on to this plan and that's because it's ridiculous. It's the kind of nonsense that Capitol Hill staffers would conjure up after beer number five of a bull session in Georgetown only to be dismissed wholesale before the waitress comes back with beer number six.

At that point the Republicans would hold firm, watching public opinion and hoping the Democrats would buckle, going along with what were relatively modest demands.

So they would begin the "holding firm" stage of this master plan by conceding an important demand. Always a great idea...

Johnson actually goes on to make several good points on the nature of the Obamacare debate:

As Johnson sees it, waging the fight over what was essentially total repeal of the law “poisoned the well” throughout the shutdown, giving Obama and Reid the upper hand.

That's almost certainly true, but it's hard to sympathize with Johnson's plight here. Total repeal is what the GOP demanded, it's what Republican have been promised and it's what nearly every conservative law-maker in Washington -- including Johnson himself, who has repeated referred to the law as the greatest threat to freedom in his lifetime" -- have advocated for in recent years. When you spend four years riling up your base into a berserker frenzy they're going to expect you deliver sooner or later. 

Johnson is going to catch all sorts of hell from his base on this one. I have no idea what he was thinking showing a reporter this "plan" or what he hopes to accomplish by doing this. His PR strategy in this case seems to me to be just as sound as his legislative strategy during the months leading up to the shutdown.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Crotch Shot and a Shit-eating Grin

...would have made a better title for Scott Walker's "book" based on the cover photo.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Voters -- Democracy's Necessary Idiots

One of the enduring themes of Senator Ron Johnson's time in office has been a flagrant contempt for voters, which was once again on display during a talk at the US Chamber of Commerce this week:
Johnson stressed that he did not want to malign participatory democracy, but that the outcome reflected the influence of disengaged voters. 
“How can Wisconsin have Ron Johnson and Tammy Baldwin? This is actually very simple. It’s math. In my election, which was an off-year election, there were 2.2 million voters. In the Scott Walker recall, which in Wisconsin was a really big thing. That was a really big deal. Everybody knew about it. There were about 2.5 million voters. Another 300,000 people came out to the polls to reelect Scott Walker. In the presidential election, there were 3 million voters.” 
This is where Johnson makes his big pitch: “I would argue that if you’re not involved enough in the process to come out and vote in the Scott Walker recall, how informed are you really? On what basis are you casting your vote?”
There are all kinds of silliness in that statement. One could just as easily say that since Johnson was elected in an election with only 52% voter turnout -- compared to the 72% that came out to elect Tammy Baldwin -- that his legitimacy in the Senate is diminished. It's all a matter of perspective. 

Of course Johnson should also take issue with the 42,800 more people who voted for Tommy Thompson in 2012 than voted for Scott Walker in 2011. Presumably, they weren't "engaged enough in the process" to cast their ballots on a whatever basis Johnson thinks is legitimate.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Is Ron Johnson Seriously Thinking about Running for President?

So Ron Johnson is spending the Dog Days of August in Iowa ... and probably not because he's planning on running for President, but because that's where the attention is.

Or is it?

If there's one very important detail, albeit one that's not exactly breaking news, to be emphasized in this story it's that Johnson's trip under the Americans for Prosperity banner. Johnson and AFP have always enjoyed strong ties and during his time in the Senate Johnson has sought to strengthen those ties, even dining with AFP's billionaire founder David Koch on one very public occasion during last year's RNC. Now, given the Brothers Koch and AFP's hyper-demonized reputation on the Left here in Wisconsin, it would be easy to make some snide remark about how Johnson is just a lackey doing the bidding on his pluotcrat overlord blah blah blah, but that would just undermine what is potentially a very real and very close working relationship between the two.

Here's what I mean by that: Johnson and Koch seem to share a similar libertarian worldview that prioritizes deregulation of private industry and dissolution of the social safety net, the consequence of which is much lower taxes across the board (but significantly so for those who already operate in the upper strata of the tax bracket). All else -- cultural issues, foreign policy, etc. -- run a distant second to core economic principles and really only get attention in so far they might intersect with the economy or can be used as political tools for achieving economic ends. The two men seem to possess similar temperaments developed over decades as manufacturers. It's a good bet that Koch and Johnson get along quite well and connect on a personal level.

Why is that important? Because Koch is the potential 800 pound Gorilla of political benefactors in the post-Citizens United Age. If David Koch wants to stop screwing around with his dozens of SuperPACs, thinks tanks, astroturf after-school clubs -- all of which have a spotty record of success, despite all the liberal handwringing -- and put his full weight and resources behind running an actual candidate for the White House, it's easy to see him lining up behind someone like Ron Johnson, possibly in an even more involved way than Sheldon Adelson was for Newt Gingrich in 2012.

And what's in it for Ron Johnson, aside from the possibility of becoming the most powerful man in the world?

For starters, it seems that running for the GOP presidential nomination is almost a negative-free proposition. Ron Paul went from idiosyncratic back-bencher Congressman to political cult icon after his runs for the White House. Mike Huckabee now runs a small media empire. Even Herman Cain got a talk show out of one of the most incompetently run Presidential campaigns in history. All have been embraced as martyrs to "the DC establishment" in some form or another. Ron Johnson thought getting into politics would give him a platform to share his ideas, but so far no one seems to be listening. That will change should he decide to run for the highest office in the land.  

(There are other more technical issues, most of which relate to the potential difficulties surrounding Johnson's 2016 re-election campaign. Maybe we'll get to those in another post.)

If Johnson did get into the 2016 ring, it would throw a very large wrench in the national ambitions of Governor Walker. Walker is clearly depending on Koch-allied money people to contribute to his White House bid in 2016 and if Johnson starts siphoning all that money away from Walker, then the Governor would go from "dark horse" to also-ran faster than you can say "Vegans Vandalize Butter Cow at State Fair." I'm sure there are a lot of phone calls being made from Scott Walker's camp today trying to gauge just what Johnson's intentions exactly are.

(We're still confident that Paul Ryan is not running President in 2016, so there's little point in speculating on how a possible Johnson run would impact a campaign that we simply don't believe will happen. It's far more interesting to ponder how Ryan would ally himself under such circumstances. Again, fodder for another post.)

Here's the thing: money doesn't win Iowa. The last two winners of the Iowa GOP caucus were underfunded, social conservatives who spent hundreds of man-hours press the fleshing in restaurants and living rooms from Dubuque to Sioux City. Johnson doesn't have much experience with that kind of intimate retail politics -- a better strategy for a possible Johnson Presidential run would be to essentially ignore Iowa and concentrate 80-90% of his time and resources on New Hampshire. 

Nevertheless, having the Koch imprimatur would immediately confer an avalanche of credibility on Johnson, especially among the Beltway horse race handicappers -- and that's the kind of attention Ron Johnson really craves.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Shorter Wisconsin GOP: At Least We're Not Detroit

Get used to that talking point Wisconsin, you're going to be hearing a lot of it in the next few years.

In the last week both Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Senator Ron Johnson have offered their opinions on the Motor City's recent bankruptcy. And why won't they? Walker bent over backwards to take cheap shots at neighboring Illinois during his first year or so in office, a habit that he has quietly abandoned as our neighbors to the south have continually walloped our economic asses under Walker's watch. No doubt Walker needs another very low bar with which to measure himself.

But next to Detroit, everywhere looks good. The city is such a basket-case, so rife with so many problems that it's an ideal disaster from which to cherry-pick lessons. Take Johnson's USA Today piece, for example. The Senator spends nearly 800 words -- 798 to be precise -- arguing against bailing out out Motown ... and yet none of those words are either "car," "auto," "automobile," "motor," or even "industry." Some derivation of the word "tax", however, does appear eight times. It's as if the city had never suffered the collapse of the very source of its wealth. This is typical Johnson: it's always government's fault. The decline of the American auto industry, however, had very little to do with government regulation or intervention and everything to do with -- long story short here -- competition from abroad, producing cars that American consumers didn't want and the globalization of the world economy. In other words, the kind of textbook capitalism that Johnson frequently fetishes.

Then there's Walker speaking at a National Governors Association meeting in Milwaukee today:
In the wake of Detroit's bankruptcy filing, Walker said the city would not be in such dire straits if it were located in the state of Wisconsin instead of Michigan. 
"If Detroit were in Wisconsin, Detroit wouldn't be declaring bankruptcy right now," he said. "If (Chicago Mayor) Rahm Emmanuel had Chicago in Wisconsin, he would be able to do the sorts of school reforms he's trying to do to make the schools work better." 
Walker's comments struck some as revisionist history.
"Revisionist" is probably the kindest word one could use to describe that comment.

Listen, Walker is running for President and pretty much every word out of his mouth for the next four years is going to be self-laudatory hyperbole, so it's important to take everything -- and I mean, everything -- with a grain of salt. Taking a whack at such low-hanging fruit in such brazenly political manner is, actually, one of talents that may earn Walker the GOP presidential nomination. Republicans seem to enjoy few things more than chest-beating and empty gestures these days and Walker's clearly going to provide them such by the shovelful.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Ron Johnson's "Victims of Government" Project goes from Bad to Trainwreck

In late March, Senator Ron Johnson rolled out his Victims of Government project. Presumably, the point of the whole affair was to highlight the ways "big government" interferes with lives average, everyday Americans. The project was not popular with several local editorial boards. We honestly expected Johnson to just let the matter die a quiet death, like his earlier America's Choice initiative, and just hope people forgot about it. That probably would have been the smart thing to do, in any event.

So, naturally, that's not what happened.

Regardless of what we may think of the overall value of the endeavor (which is to say, not much), Johnson's first story out of the gate seemed to perfectly illustrate a kind of Kafka-esque bureaucratic nightmare "that could happen to anyone!" It was a compelling story that featured an apolitical Everyman fighting "the system." The only real draw-back was that the example was so egregious that even Democrats, or at least Sen. Claire McCaskill, didn't disagree with him. It was actually a tough act to follow.

Johnson claimed that his office has been receiving similar stories from average Americans since he launched the project, makes the second installment of the VoG project odd in so far as it comes straight from the headlines:

U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson's latest "victim of government," Catherine Engelbrecht, says her group's involvement against the Scott Walker recall effort prompted a backlash from the IRS, which is conducting a a lengthy review of her applications for tax-exempt status for tea party groups she founded.

The Root River Siren has the details why Englebrecht isn't exactly an innocent naif in her dealings with the IRS, but just consider the optics of Johnson's decision to highlight the plight of a fellow conservative politician for a moment: if Johnson had hoped that this project would give a voice to the voiceless he has abdicated that aim by taking up the cause of a fellow partisan in what is unquestionably a political fight. Englebrecht is a professional politician complaining about the role politics played in a political decision -- not exactly an easy person to relate to or sympathize with.

Making matters more ridiculous is that Johnson's video taking up Englebrecht's cause was paid for by his Senate office. Last time around, several newspapers took issue with the inherent contradictions between government money being spent to promote a message that government is a problem. This time around, Johnson's office is spending money for a clear political end. There's actually a case to be made, however technical, that Johnson is abusing his office by jumping into this very political fight ... which is ironic considering that's what he's accusing the IRS of doing in the video.

This is amateur hour political messaging -- real bush league stuff. It's bad enough that Johnson & Co. decided to continue with a program that he was roundly criticized for, but to do so this ineptly is really rather remarkable. I mean, given the number of people who were involved with the creation of this video, from conception to final product, how could no one stop and think that this was a probably an unwise idea? The answer to that question probably goes a long way to explain why Johnson's office is so horrible at promoting his message. This is a considerable problem considering that messaging and "educating the public" are pretty much all that Johnson does.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Local Health Care Costs Revealed!

Today's release of Medicare data on the cost of specific medical treatments in America is rather eye opening.

First, let's look at the state-wide picture, which isn't so bad relative to the rest of the country (as always, click to embiggen):

The highest and lowest billed amounts are national figures, not Wisconsin specific numbers. By and large, however, Wisconsin patients appear to get billed below the national average, which is to be expected given variables like income and cost of living. The most expensive state appears to be New Jersey, while the least is Maryland.

So far, a good deal of the analysis has been centered on the difference between hospitals in close geographic proximity to each other. Like this:
When a patient arrives at Bayonne Hospital Center in New Jersey requiring treatment for the respiratory ailment known as COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, she faces an official price tag of $99,690. 
Less than 30 miles away in the Bronx, N.Y., the Lincoln Medical and Mental Health Center charges only $7,044 for the same treatment, according to a massive federal database of national health care costs made public on Wednesday.
Or this:
In the District [of Columbia], George Washington University’s average bill for a patient on a ventilator was $115,000, while Providence Hospital’s average charge for the same service was just under $53,000. For a lower joint replacement, George Washington University charged almost $69,000 compared with Sibley Memorial Hospital’s average of just under $30,000.
Or this:
Loyola Gottlieb Memorial Hospital in Melrose Park, Ill., outside Chicago, charged the highest prices for 16 of the 24 procedures reviewed by HuffPost. For kidney failure, Loyola Gottlieb charged $97,926, more than twice average cost of 59 hospitals in the Chicago area. The price is more than five times what John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital, 12 miles to the east, charges.
That's not entirely fair. Not all hospitals are created equally, and this is especially true in urban areas where the variety among health care centers is particularly noticeable. Some hospitals are teaching centers attached to universities. Some have to maintain expensive trauma centers that likely need to be subsidized with revenue from other departments. Others provide amenities, like a guaranteed private rooms per patient. Some only treat children, some specialize in specific ailments, etc. All of these variables will increase or decrease the costs of a given hospital's services. 

But hospitals start to look much more alike when one moves away from the population centers. Lets look at the local level here in Oshkosh. Here are the prices for comparable procedures at the two hospitals in Oshkosh. The figures below are for the year 2011:

That last unlabeled column is how much more expensive the cost of a procedure is at Aurora relative to the cost at Mercy Medical Center. The average mark-up is about 78.25% (that's my quick math/not double-checked figure). 

That's kind of amazing. I can't think of a single good or service available in the Fox Valley that costs almost twice as much at one place as its does at its closest competitor.

It's difficult to say why Aurora costs so much more than Mercy. One would be hard pressed to argue that Aurora is 78% more superior than it's competitor just 1.6 miles down the road. In fact, most of the scuttlebutt among the doctors I've gleaned over recent years has been that the opposite is actually true: that Mercy is actually the better place not only receive care, but also to work.

By the way, I only briefly glanced at the data for Theda Clark Medical Center in Neenah, which is almost universally regarded at the gold standard for health care in the Fox Valley, and it's costs appear to be even lower than Mercy's. (It's also not at all surprising for those of us "lucky" enough to have dealt with all three hospitals recently.)

There is a lot that remains to be said about the gulf between health care billing. I don't think anyone will be disappointed that this kind of information will add some much needed transparency to the mystery of medical costs. People who think the America health care system is just fine and dandy will predict that costs will undergo a "market correction:" Aurora will need to slash it's prices to remain competitive while Mercy will potentially hike up it's own rates because, well, it can. That's how the free market works.

But the difference in cost between Mercy and Aurora is a big reason how we got into the medical cost mess we're currently negotiating in this country. It's very easy to say that one company is simply doing a better job than the other at keeping costs down and that one will simply disappear if it can't remain competitive -- that's fine if you're talking about, say, a toy manufacturer since the customers in that scenario don't stand to lose much. Health care is a different story altogether, especially since insurance companies very frequently determine which health care systems their policy-holders must use. For people without insurance the consequences could be catastrophic: the difference between treating kidney failure with comorbid conditions (683 on the spreadsheet above) at Aurora as opposed to Mercy is an additional $26,000. It's easy to see how people who don't make much more than that a year suddenly find themselves in dire financial straights. 

It's also a pretty strong validation of the work of former Oshkosh state legislator Greg Underheim, who made cost transparency in health care a signature issue. It wouldn't surprise me that most health care consumers understood, if only intrinsically, how arbitrary medical cost could be, but I doubt anyone would have assumed we would be looking at such a stark example so close to home. It clearly remains to be seen if this level of transparency will be enough to curb exploding medical costs, but this is the kind of measure that patients should have had years ago.  

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Ron Johnson's Justification for voting against Reasonable Gun Control Legislation is Based on a Lie

Senator Ron Johnson recently took a lot of grief for his procedural vote against recent gun control legislation in the senate, so he took to the august pages of something called Right Wisconsin (more on this later) to explain his vote. He explains one of what he considers the numerous flaws of the bill:
For example, the bill would have made it a crime for you to give a gun to your nephew as a gift, or lend a rifle to your cousin for deer season, without first paying for a background check.  It also would have required a federal record of every firearm sale - recording who was the buyer and what was purchased.
Here's the Manchin-Toomey synopsis:

As under current law, temporary transfers do not require background checks, so, for example, you can loan your hunting rifle to your buddy without any new restrictions or requirements.

As under current law, transfers between family, friends, and neighbors do not require background checks. You can give or sell a gun to your brother, your neighbor, your coworker without a background check. You can post a gun for sale on the cork bulletin board at your church or your job without a background check.

Our bill explicitly bans the federal government from creating a registry and creates a new penalty for misusing records to create a registry—a felony punishable by 15 years in prison.

Johnson seems to have bought into the lie that the NRA was propagating about this very subject prior to the vote. Either Johnson is carrying the NRA's water, or he lying himself. Either way he doesn't exactly come off looking good.

But back to the fact that this piece appears at "Right Wisconsin," which is Charlie Sykes' latest attempt to squeeze revenue out of Waukasha County pensioners. I just don't see what audience he's trying to speak to here. Anyone who would go to this website would likely already be a conservative nutter who doesn't need Johnson to justify his vote. The moderate Republicans who might have found fault with his vote, those members of the 80% of Wisconsinites who favor reasonable gun control measures. Those people are probably not going to be dabbling in fringe right wing websites.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

This Bodes Some Strange Eruption to Our State

In case you missed it, Jonathan Krause had some things to say about Denmark this morning. The post is yet another one of Krause's attempts to justify his ideology by holding up anecdotal information and proclaiming it to be representative of a larger truth. The whole piece could be shortened to "See, I told you so!" but, of course, doesn't strand up to much scrutiny.

From this NYT article describing a recent push to reform the generous Danish social welfare system in the context of a few people who have appeared to abuse it, Kruase seems to be under the impression that the little Nordic nation is in imminent peril of complete economic collapse:
Denmark is the liberal utopia of Europe.  Here are some of the government benefits afforded to its citizens:
Free health care
Free child care
Free education through six years of college
Four years of unemployment benefits
Free maid service for the elderly
Lifetime disability benefits
Government retirement pensions starting in your 50's
A minimum wage of $20 an hour--with short work weeks and extended vacations
This list is culled from scattered facts dropped throughout the course of the article and -- surprise, surprise! -- is not entirely accurate ... and by that I mean that Krause simply didn't read the article carefully enough. For example, Denmark no longer provides four years of unemployment benefits, but does provide two years. The free maid service for the elderly is available "if they need it" (and, as an aside, has apparently been privatized in recent years). Also, not only does Denmark provide six years of college free of charge to it's students, but it also gives them a nearly $1000 monthly stipend while they're hitting the books, so Krause is actually selling himself short on that account.
By the way, these benefits are provided to everyone--regardless of their need for government assistance or their ability to pay on their own. And of course, all of this is funded by the highest personal and corporate tax rates in all of Europe.

Sweden actually has a higher upper marginal income tax rate (56.6%). To be fair, Denmark is #2 and not very far behind at 55.4%. Yet while I may be splitting hairs with respect to personal taxes, I'm not with regard to corporate taxes, as Belgium (34%), France (33%), Germany (29.5%), Greece (26%), Italy (31.4%), Luxemburg (28.5%), Malta (35%), Norway (28%) and Spain (30%) all have higher corporate taxes than Denmark (25%) did last year. In fact, Denmark was actually just slightly below the OEDC average (25.4%) and not that much higher than the global average (24.08%). This is not a trivial detail, since Krause wants to portray Denmark as an anti-business commune for loafers. It's clearly not.  
But now all of that [i.e. the generous welfare state] is threatened not by the global recession but by the growing attitude among the populace that it no longer "pays to work".  The article describes how a single mother of two makes 47-thousand dollars in government benefits--without having to think about looking for a job.  
Krause's math is incorrect. Here are the first two graphs of the times story:
COPENHAGEN — It began as a stunt intended to prove that hardship and poverty still existed in this small, wealthy country, but it backfired badly. Visit a single mother of two on welfare, a liberal member of Parliament goaded a skeptical political opponent, see for yourself how hard it is. 
It turned out, however, that life on welfare was not so hard. The 36-year-old single mother, given the pseudonym “Carina” in the news media, had more money to spend than many of the country’s full-time workers. All told, she was getting about $2,700 a month, and she had been on welfare since she was 16.
$2700 x 12 = $32,400, not $47,000 ... I don't know where he gets that number.

$32,000 sounds like a lot of money, and it is, but Krause is trying to confuse his readers into believing that we dole out just as much money to our welfare recipients as the Danes do. The truth is that there's really no good way to determine how much the "average" government assistance recipient receives due to the byzantine way the United States handles welfare. There are too many different programs (Medicare, SNAP, TANF, etc.) handled at both the state and federal level to come up with a convenient figure. 

For example, the average monthly benefit for families enrolled in SNAP, what we used to call "food stamps" an is far and away the largest assistance program in the country, was $281 in 2012. That's $3372 a year, but "only 8 percent of all SNAP households received Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits, and another 4 percent received State General Assistance (GA) benefits. Over 22 percent of SNAP households received Social Security, and 20 percent received Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits given to the aged and disabled." You can see how complicated divining such a figure can get ... the moral of the story is that such generous state aide as provided in Denmark does not exist here in America.

But let's return to the $32,000 for a moment. I noted that it both seemed like and was a lot of money, but it might actually not be. The average net income in Denmark is $36,712 -- that's after taxes, just to emphasize. But here's the real x-factor: Denmark is not an inexpensive place to live. Copenhagen, where about 1/3 of the population lives, is one of the most expensive cities in the world to live in, ranking #21 in this 2012 cost of living survey ahead of London, Paris, and New York. A dollar in Denmark just doesn't go as far as it would most anywhere else. (We'll get back to this thought in a little bit.)
The poster child of the new Danish attitude has become "Lazy Robert" Oleson--who is quoted in the article as boasting about having lived on welfare programs exclusively since 2001--and is pictured sitting in a curbside lounge chair, with his feet up, along the curb on a bright sunny day.  Lazy Robert says most available jobs are "demeaning". 
Add to that, the graying of of the Danish population and you run into the same problem every other nanny state reaches--too many on the dole, and not enough working to foot the bill. 
So Denmark is making some changes to "encourage" people to actually get back to work and contribute to their society. 
I'm not sure how much credibility a guy who proudly calls himself "Lazy Robert" has on policy issues relating to welfare, but he sure does add some lovely local color to the article!

So is Lazy Robert an outlier or the embodiment of just how far the mighty Norsemen of Denmark have fallen? Per the usual, Krause's assessment is complete nonsense. Here's Matt Yglasias:

As you can see above, both before and after the global economic downturn the share of the Danish population that works is substantially above the OECD average. The United States, which has one of the stingiest welfare states in the OECD is also above average in this regard. But Denmark exceeds even the United States in terms of the share of the population that's working.
In fact, unemployment in Denmark is lower than it is in the United States. Currently the Danish unemployment rate is 4.6% vs. 7.6% for the old USA. How else do you think the Danes pay for their expensive welfare state? 

But this gets to another important point that seems to influence Krause perception of the world we live in: Krause seems to think that fiscal responsibility and a robust social safety net are incompatible. In fact, Denmark is evidence that they are, indeed, quite compatible:
It goes unmentioned in the [NYT] article that Denmark remains apart from the sovereign debt crisis in the Eurozone by possessing its own currency, the krone, and had strict banking regulations which insulated the country from the worst of the 2008-09 Financial Crisis. Furthermore, besides Denmark's AAA credit rating noted in the [NYT] article, Denmark possesses low inflation (2.6%), unemployment levels comparable to the U.S., a labor force participation rate comparable to the U.S., public debt (45% of GDP in 2012) at around half that of the U.S., Canada, or Germany, and is considered to be the 5th easiest country in which to business in 2013 (right behind the U.S.) by the World Bank.
In other words, Denmark's making it work. High taxes aren't discouraging people from working and a large welfare state doesn't necessarily have to put a nation under water if it's paid for upfront in the form of taxes that actually reflect the cost of social services. Furthermore, I'd conjecture that one of the reasons the Danish social safety net is so popular among the population is because they feel a certain ownership of it as a result of their considerable contributions to it.

To be sure, there will always be the need to tweek this policy or that as economic and/or culturally circumstances demand, but that's exactly what the NYT's article is all about. It's also not news at all: Denmark's been adjusting social benefits for some time now, as they did when they cut unemployment benefits in half three years ago; not because their financial situation forced them to, but because their financial situation was stable enough that they had the -- dare I say? -- freedom to improve public policy:
Denmark has long held the title of the best place on earth to be laid off. With an expensive, generous welfare state, and the world’s most lavish unemployment insurance scheme, virtually no one falls through the cracks upon losing a job. 
But the government unveiled an unpleasant surprise in June [2010], when it halved the country’s whopping four-year unemployment benefits period to help mend its finances after the financial crisis. 
The reason: Danish studies show that the longer a person goes without a job, the harder it is to find work. Many people get a job within the first three months of entering the system, but many more wait until just before benefits expire to take anything available. 
“So you need to have a period of unemployment that is as short as possible,” Claus Hjort Frederiksen, the finance minister, told me recently in Copenhagen.
It's all part of what's called "flexicurity," a truly terrible neologism that's "a hybrid of free labor markets, unfettered business and adjusting welfare to give incentives for people to work so they can pay taxes to finance the benefits they get." It's a policy that, far from encouraging people to loaf around on the public dime, has achieved remarkable success in creating employment, even during the recession. Danish unemployment is only 0.5% higher today than it was when the global economy was booming in December 2005. Variations of the theme have sprouted up all over Scandinavia. Not that any of this matters to Krause:
I love this quote from the nation's Minister of Social Affairs who oversees the welfare state: 
"They think of these benefits as their rights.  The rights have just expanded and expanded.  But now we have to go back to the rights and the duties.  We all need to contribute." 
Doesn't that sound eerily familiar to the arguments that were used for the Affordable Care Act and increased spending for colleges and universities  "Every American has a right to cheap health care" and "Everyone has a right to a low-cost college education."  You never seem to hear that "Everyone has an obligation to pay for that" too.
There certainly are a good number of people in America who like to yell that affordable, or even free, health care and/or education is a right. I don't count myself one of them. That's a philosophical discussion that I doubt will bear much fruit; but I do think affordable, and even free, health care and/or education is simply wise public policy. In Denmark, however, it's not a philosophical question at all: Danes have already paid for a good portion of their welfare state and are entitled to the same sense of ownership anyone feels for a service or property. You never seem to hear that "Everyone has an obligation to pay for that" -- but that's exactly what is said in Denmark.
The most ironic thing in how the nanny states are collapsing under their own weight, is that we here in America are being told all the time how we need to be "more like Europe"--when Europe is finding out they needed to be "more like us".
It should go without saying that Krause conclusion misses the point entirely, but what I'd really like to know is just who is out there saying "We need to be more like Europe"? Where are these people? Do they speak the Queen's English? Or are these just words placed in some group's mouth to paint them as effete elitists?

No one's ever going to accuse Krause of thinking deeply on this or any other subject, but I am disappointed he missed a golden opportunity to compare Denmark to Wisconsin. Both have largely homogeneous populations of about 5.65 million. Each has one major urban area that serves as a financial and cultural home to about 1/3 of the people. There are important differences too: Denmark's public sector is 32% of the workforceWisconsin's is 12%; Danish union membership is 87% of the workforce; Danes spend tens of billions of dollars on things like a navy that are provided for Wisconsin by the federal government, etc. 

So why does it seem Denmark is punching above it's weight class in Europe while Wisconsin is merely keeping pace in the United States?

If I had to hazard a guess, it would be that Denmark has a unique imperative to invest in its own people that people in Wisconsin can't hope to have any time soon. Denmark is an ancient country with it's own language, culture, history, traditions, even it's own church. At the same time, Danes make up only 0.75% of the continent. All the things that make the Danish, well, Danish run the risk of evaporating in the 21st century quicker than you can say Hans Christian Anderson. The people of Denmark find high taxes acceptable because it's part of the preservation of their national identity and way of life in ways that are only loosely tied to economics.

Americans are unmoored of such concerns and it's something we consider to be one of our great strengths, but that doesn't mean that the opposite is necessarily wrong or bad. Krause doesn't seem to grasp this, possibly because he's fetishized American individualism to an absurd degree that he can't seem to grasp that the Danish economic model actually allows Danes an economic freedom that is unthinkable here in America:
The "flex" part of flexicurity is a flexible labor market. Workers can be fired with little notice. Roughly 800,000 Danes, or about 30% of the labor force, switch jobs each year, government statistics show. Only 10,000 of the turnover is attributed to layoffs. Most move on to what they see as better jobs.
This kind of job-hopping isn't possible in the United States where a large portion of the workforce is shackled to their current job, in many cases due to health care benefits. By unburdening the private sector of the insurance costs of its employees, Denmark fosters an environment where people can potentially take risks by going to another job or leave an otherwise stagnant work environment. It also has created a harmony between employers and employees and freedom from labor disputes that simply doesn't exist in America.

Does that mean everything's awesome on the shores of the Baltic Sea? Of course not, but to claim that something's rotten in Denmark based on a poor reading of single article is, well, it's actually pretty much par for the course for Krause.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

[Ron] Johnson was the only senator in either party who voted against the [background checks] bill who is from a state in what I have called “the blue wall”: the 18 states that have voted Democratic in at least the past six consecutive presidential elections. From those states, all 32 Democratic senators plus Republicans Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Mark Kirk of Illinois, and Susan Collins of Maine voted for the bill. Johnson’s opposition may be an anomaly for Wisconsin because he is accumulating an unwaveringly conservative voting record that could make it difficult for him to win reelection in 2016, when he must face a presidential-year electorate.
-Ron Brownstein, National Journal

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Sheboygan Press on Ron Johnson's "Victims of Government" Project

They are not fans:

The aim of the project — putting a human face on government red tape — is noble. However, Johnson’s time, and that of his staff, would be better utilized in attempting to do something about it rather than in merely documenting the problem. 
Lawmakers at all levels, from city hall to the halls of Congress, are made aware of government shenanigans through personal visits with constituents, phone calls and during town hall meetings. Not all government red tape, however, deserves the video treatment. It does deserve effort by lawmakers to rectify the situations presented to them, which is where Johnson should concentrate his efforts. 
Then there is the matter of cost. Johnson spokesman Brian Faughnan said the video project is part of the official function of the Subcommittee on Financial and Contracting Oversight and is funded through the budget of the Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs Committee. Faughnan did not immediately respond to a question about the project’s total cost, according to the Associated Press. 
So we have a video project of unproven — but likely marginal — value at an unknown cost to taxpayers. That’s not much to go on.
The Manitowoc Herald Times Reporter ran the same editorial.

Meanwhile, the folks at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel lash out at Johnson's threat to filibuster gun control legislation:

Make no mistake, the bill deserves a vote. The American public strongly favors tough background checks. A recent CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll found that 94% agreed that people should undergo one when attempting to buy firearms. 
We wonder if Johnson and his colleagues considered the long-term consequences of their actions. A broad majority of Americans favors expanded background checks for the sale of guns and a handful of Republican senators - in the aftermath of Newtown - try to block that legislation without so much as a vote? 
As Sen. John McCain said on "Face the Nation" on Sunday: "I don't understand it. . . . What are we afraid of? . . . I do not understand why United States senators want to block debate when the leader has said that we can have amendments." 
Johnson and the others who signed the letter should stop trying to use the arcane rules of the Senate to block democracy. The common sense idea of expanded background checks for firearm sales should come to a vote. 
This is the first time we've seen a blacklash against Johnson on two separate issues in the same week. The fact that it comes so soon after his "re-election announcement" does not bode well for the Senator.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Victimology 101

We were going to write up a yadda yadda yadda regarding Ron Johnson's "Victims of Government" web dealy when it debuted a week or whatever ago; but, frankly, just didn't care enough to do so. But now that the he's managed to break through from the NW and into the national consciousness with his own Memeorandum feed, we might as well play along.Thankfully, the editorial pages of the La Crosse Trib recently put pen to paper in a more concise way than we are capable of in a piece entitled "Ron Johnson and the victim society":

Conservatives used to argue, with some merit, that too many Americans possessed a hair-trigger victim complex. In 1989, columnist George Will decried “the growth industry of victimology.” Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas told law school graduates at Liberty University in 1996, “Be a hero, not a victim. You can't be both at the same time. It's one or the other.” 
If Thomas is right, then Wisconsin U.S. Sen Ron Johnson, R-Oshkosh, is asking citizens to forfeit their hero status. 
Johnson wants citizens to openly parade their victimhood by announcing his “Victims of Government” project. He invites anyone “who has been dealing with excess regulation” to submit their stories to his government website. 
Not just anybody is invited to join the victim party. If you served 10 years in federal prison for a crime you didn’t commit, don’t bother. Nor is the Senator interested in victims of lax government oversight — the 26 people who died in grain bin accidents in 2010, hourly workers who increasingly feel compelled to work off the clock by unscrupulous employers or anyone who got sick after eating tainted meat. The only victims Johnson bothers to champion are those who own land or own businesses. 
The fact that Johnson feels compelled to use the resources of his Senate office to solicit victims undermines the validity of his case. If there are victims out there, why don’t they appear organically? Johnson actually needs to use taxpayer funds to root them out? 
If Johnson really were committed to honest inquiry, he would hold town hall meetings and let citizens of all backgrounds and ideologies share their stories and perspectives. 
Why not come to the Tomah High School auditorium and conduct a listening session that’s open to all? The feedback wouldn’t be preordained, but it would have the virtue of spontaneity and diversity. The Senator would hear from victims, no doubt. But he might hear from some heroes, too.
The last two paragraphs are particularly biting -- as Johnson has yet to conduct virtually any townhall type dialogues or listening sessions in his 2+ years in office. He prefers canned speeches to friendly crowds when he does deign to speak to his constituents (as opposed to the august Ayn Rand acolytes at the Atlas Society).

Johnson has a poor record of following through on his various beginning-of-the-year projects. It will be interesting to see what Episode 2 looks like ... or if he even bothers.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

If the GOP is really Serious about "Tolerating" Support for Gay Marriage, why doesn't RNC Chair Reince Priebus work with state Republicans to Repeal the Wisconsin Gay Marriage Ban?

Not a bad idea, eh?

Alas, I wouldn't hold my breath:

In total, 56 percent of respondents supported federal legal recognition of same-sex marriage while 43 percent opposed it.  
The breakdown among party affiliation and generation is stark. Among those 18-34-years-old, 77 percent support federal recognition. Among those over 65-years-old, just 39 percent support it. Those in-between 34 and 65 hover around the 50 percent mark. 
Along party lines, 75 percent of Democrats, 56 percent of independents and 28 percent of Republicans support recognition.
It's a good bet that support for gay marriage among GOP state legislators is much lower than 28% at the moment. I don't know any current office-holders who even support repealing the ban, even if they might not be so sanguine about permitting gay marriage.

Priebus wants his party to have it both ways. Public opinion is increasingly saying that this isn't possible. I don't see someone like Glenn Grothmann changing his tune on the matter any time soon.

I'm unaware of a single state GOP legislator who supports repealing the marriage ban. This is an opportunity for Democrats in Madison to make Republicans own up to positions that are rapidly reaching their expiration date. It's not like they can do much more considering they are in the minority in every branch of state government.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Pre-Order Your Copy of Scott Walker's Presidential Campaign Promotional Book Today!

If this isn't the single most glaring indication that Scott Walker is running for White House in 2016, then I don't know what is.

MORE: For those unfamiliar with Marc Theissen's oeuvre, he's best known for his labored defense of "enhanced interrogation techniques" by the Bush administration and arguably the most uncomfortable interview yet to appear on the Daily Show.

The ghostwriting gig also makes Theissen Walker's first (de facto) foreign policy adviser, and since Walker has exactly zero foreign policy experience, one can safely assume that the governor has decided simply to outsource his own thoughts on the subject to the neoconservative wing of the GOP, of which Theissen is a card-carrying member.

But all this means is that Scott Walker just brought the nation's pre-eminent torture apologist into his inner circle.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Unspeakably Poor Timing of Ron Johnson's Re-election "Announcement"

So, Ron Johnson's been a member of the US Senate for a little over two years. That means he's got just under four year to go in his term. Four years is a long time. So why is Johnson telegraphing his intent to run for re-election so soon?
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) has dispelled speculation that he would only serve one term by announcing to GOP allies that he will run for reelection in 2016, according to sources. 
Johnson met with a small group of Republican strategists at the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) Thursday to discuss his future. 
“He had a meeting with some of the heavy hitters from the downtown GOP community at the NRSC. Sen. Johnson told them he would run again,” said a GOP source familiar with the meeting.
The reporter from The Hill got two people who attended the meeting to speak on the record about it -- which means this is less of a scoop and more of an intentional leak. Also, it's hardly a "kitchen cabinet" meeting when you meet with "heavy hitters" from the NRSC in downtown Washington; unless, of course, Cuisinart is producing a line of political consultants these days.

But back to the timing of this curious piece of Capitol scuttlebutt: Why, oh, why would a freshman Senator, just a few weeks beyond his first session in office announce his intentions to run for re-election so far from his appointed performance revue with Wisconsin voters? The subtext of the rest of the article seems to suggest Johnson's desperate to fend off being marginalized on account of his own irrelevance:

Unlike most of his Senate colleagues, Johnson came to the upper chamber without any prior experience holding elected office. Before running for office, he spent 31 years building a plastics manufacturing business. 
His direct approach to policy problems sometimes seems to clash with the culture of the Senate, where the culture of doing business is often circuitous. 
For this reason, some Republican lobbyists thought he might retire after one term.
“There was a lot of talk that he wasn’t going to run again, that he would walk off into the sunset,” said one GOP source.

Whomever dropped that quote did so with tongue planted firmly in cheek. That lobbyist wasn't passing along idle K Street gossip, he was using the media as a conduit to make a recommendation to Senator Johnson: lobbyists aren't speculating that he'll ride off into the sunset, they're hoping he'll do so. That's a bad sign, and by making his intentions to run again so early, Johnson seems to be proving the lobbyists point.

Every incumbent politician is constantly running for re-election every day that he or she is in office. That's part of the job, but part of the trick to doing that job well is at least keeping up the appearance that they really aren't running for re-election at all, that they are making the tough decisions based on conviction and informed opinion and extensive research and not, you know, politics. Now that Johnson has made his intention to run for re-election clear so early it will be next to impossible to view any of the decisions he makes for the remainder of his term in office as anything other than part of a re-election strategy.

Johnson keeps on insisting that he wants to have a genuine policy discussion about the issues, but he's made that conversation all but impossible now because when given the choice between horse race politics and "serious" policy discussion voters and the media will always gravitate toward the ponies. This little stunt isn't going to convince his colleagues that he's going to be around for the long haul; in fact, it'll likely make him even less relevant because it's just lousy politics. (Besides, Johnson not very good at serious policy discussions either, as anyone who saw his, er, "conversation" with Paul Krugman this morning discovered.)

Johnson clearly is not enjoying his time in Washington. His approval numbers haven't budged from the mid-30s almost since the day he took office. (Tammy Bladwin's figures are almost 10 points higher.) The GOP bench in Wisconsin is rather deep, so don't be surprised if he has a change of heart in the next four years.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Is Senator Johnson a Quitter?

A couple of weeks ago, Senator Johnson spoke wot the MJS's Washington bureau chief, Craig Gilbert, and various issues involving Johnson's transition into his second session of congress, including the reshuffling of his committee assignments. One passage of the discussion is particularly worth noting:
[L]ast month Johnson left his biggest committee assignment - appropriations - and joined the foreign relations panel... 
Johnson said in an interview this week that he left appropriations because he got tired of being one of the only members routinely opposing spending bills. 
"Most of the votes we had in committee I was losing 29-1 or 28-2," says Johnson, who also serves on the Budget, Commerce, Small Business and Homeland Security panels.
I'm absolutely baffled that the Senator thought it would be a good idea to either a.) admit this, or b.) spin his departure from the committee in this way. Regardless of which option one chooses, he's basically saying, "Yeah, I saw I had a really tough job ahead of me, so I quit."

People might not like politicians, but we still want them to be fighters. We admire tenaciousness and perseverance, especially against long odds and/or in the service of lost causes. William Proxmire spent 12 years handing out his famous Golden Fleece Awards. It took Russ Feingold almost 10 years to pass his idea of campaign finance reform through Congress. Expecting anything to happen overnight in the Senate, especially from one of the body's most junior members, is a bit unreasonable.
He complained the minority had little real power, and his anti-spending votes often placed him in the minority of the minority. Johnson was also the only Republican on the panel who wasn't a "ranking member" (meaning the designated lead senator for his party) on any of the appropriations subcommittees.
The only way one really becomes a ranking sub/committee member on one of, if not the, most sought after committees in the Senate is seniority. This may be contrary to Johnson's experience on the Homeland Security committee (where he is a ranking member of the subcommittee on Government Management, the Federal Workforce and the District of Columbia), but the statures of the two committees are completely different. If you want power in the Senate, you have to wait your turn.

Presumably, based on the other notable passage in Gilbert's piece, Johnson intrinsically understands this:
Given his frustrations over federal spending, the outcome of the 2012 election and his party's minority status in the U.S. Senate, Johnson was asked whether he expected to seek a second term. 
"I'm certainly taking the steps to do so," he said.
Yet given that the word "frustration" is almost never absent from any article about Johnson, it's not difficult seeing him quit the Senate all together when the chance comes.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

The only reasonable way to respond to Jonathan Krause's idiotic "Why can't I make fun of minorities?" screed is thusly:

Personally, I would looooooooove to hear Krause's wacky and humorous take on "the negro problem" in America and encourage him to grace us all with his thoughts on the matter forthwith.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Why Tony Blando was a Terrible Choice to be Senator Ron Johnson's New Chief of Staff

In case you didn't notice, Sen. Ron Johnson had his worst week since moving to Washington last week. His antics during the Foreign Relations committee Benghazi hearings transformed him from being a back-bencher no one had heard of into the subject of snickering and ridicule around the Beltway.

In the past we've pointed to Johnson's inability to surround himself with a knowledgeable staff for a lot of the problems that have befallen his tenure in the Senate and this post will be no exception. We're admittedly little late to this story, but it's still worth commenting on. Apparently, sometime in early December, Johnson made his then-state director Tony Blando his new Chief of Staff, replacing then-acting Chief of Staff Ken McKay who had filled the gap since Johnson's first Chief of Staff, Don Kent, departed in early October. (Got all that?)

This is an incredibly bad decision.

Being a Senate Chief of Staff requires a fairly extensive skill set that can only be acquired on Capitol Hill. It's a gig that demands strong connections to other Senate offices, solid relationships with leaders in the House, vast reservoirs of goodwill among the press corps, reliable ties to important parts of the federal bureaucracy and a finger on the pulse of K Street. The only way to earn these kinds of credentials is by being in Washington. That's why when one examines the resumes of most Senate Chiefs of Staff one often find decades of Capitol Hill experience.

Blando has zero Washington experience. None. In fact, he's only had a little over 2 years of total political experience, most of which has been spent as Johnson's state director. That's not an unimportant job, but it will do him little good in Washington where no one knows him. The only qualification Blando really has to be in charge of a Senate office is the trust of the Senator. This is usually a good thing, but in Senator Johnson's case it's actually counterproductive. Here's why.

As the Benghazi hearings demonstrated, Ron Johnson's political instincts suck. Right now, the most important function any of his staff members can offer their employer is to say "no" -- and no person is in a better position to offer this kind of harsh counsel that a chief of staff. Blando is probably not going to be that guy for several reasons. The first is his overall political inexperience. The second is that he and Johnson are on the same page ideologically and are likely to of the same mind as to which fights Johnson should enter (and Johnson clearly hasn't learned which fights to pick yet). Lastly, but certainly not least importantly, most Senate Chiefs of Staffs are able to operate with a certain degree of swagger, confident that should they ever run foul with their current employer, they will be able to quickly find a job in another office or at a lobbying firm. Blando doesn't have that kind of job insurance.

This last point is extremely important. Senators have raging egos that are feed by Washington's legions of sycophants. The unique kind of "job security" that Chiefs of Staff enjoy allow them to tell their bosses "no" without the threat of derailing their careers. Blando won't enjoy that kind protection. In fact, Blando's power in the Senate is almost entirely dependent on keeping one person, Ron Johnson, happy. That power dynamic is a recipe for creating a Yes Man, which is not the kind of staffer the GOP leadership likely wants aiding a Senator whose political instincts suck.

Further complicating Blando's promotion is the fact that, by all accounts, he has a friendly personal relationship with Johnson, one that developed prior to both men's entrance into the political arena. That will make Blando difficult to fire if or when such an action becomes warranted or necessary. Both men will be returning to Oshkosh when their Excellent Washington Adventure concludes and if folks in DC thought it was awkward running into unemployed old co-workers at the Safeway in Georgetown, just try doing the same at the Pick'n'Save on Murdock Avenue in Oshkosh.

The bottom line is that Blando will likely be Johnson's Chief of Staff for the remainder of the Senator's term in office. His promotion concludes a transition period in Johnson's office that has lasted about a year and one that marks the conclusion of Johnson's slow descent into a full-blown bunker mentality. Johnson simply does not trust anyone in Washington and this is making it almost impossible for him to have any hope of doing his job. The people he does trust, who all seem to have come along for the ride from Oshkosh, have not proven to be up to the task. Worst of all, Johnson doesn't seem to have made this connection yet.

That means more episodes like the Benghazi hearings are just over the horizon.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Ron Johnson's Delusional Account of his Benghazi Conversation with Hillary Clinton

This afternoon we took a look at the optics of Senator Ron Johnson's exchange with Hillary Clinton at the Benghazi hearing, but after Johnson published his little piece recapping the discussion tonight, we just couldn't help examining the substance of the dialog.

First, to the video. Here's the whole uncut conversation. Note the obvious hostility on Johnson's part from the very beginning. He can't even get through the obligatory pleasantries without sounding, at best, perfunctory.

In our minds their is little question that Johnson comes off looking much, much worse in the extended C-SPAN director's cut then he does in the cable TV edit. A lot of this probably has to do with the camera angles -- high on Clinton and lowish on Johnson -- but even more of it involves the steady way the tension between the two builds and builds before finally coming to a boil in the last minute.

Then we read Johnson brief op-ed published in USA Today late Wednesday night. The article is full of factual errors about the event that seriously make us wonder if Johnson was paying any attention at all to Clinton's answers. His recall of events that not only happened just 12 hours earlier, but are easily available in video form online, is almost delusional. We'll show you what we mean, line by line.

During her Senate testimony, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated that approximately 25 Americans who were on the ground or who witnessed the terrorist attack in Benghazi were immediately evacuated. 
That's not what she said at all. Clinton said that between 25 and 30 people were evacuated from the Benghazi compound. Johnson asks the question at 1:46 and Clinton answers "The numbers are a little hard to pin down because of our other friends ... Approximately 25 to 30." Despite the fact that Clinton specifically included "our other friends," presumably local militia or other people employed at the consulate, among the evacuees, Johnson erroneously claims they are Americans.

Had Johnson read the ARB report, even the declassified version (see page 19), he would have known there were 7 Americans in the consulate when the assault began. We're only through the first sentence and already Johnson is playing fast and loose with the facts.
Secretary Clinton also revealed that neither she, nor her senior people, debriefed or spoke with those people immediately after the attack, or for months afterward, to understand what happened. She stated that she didn't want to be later accused of playing politics.
The word "debrief" was never used by either Johnson or Clinton during the hearing, though Clinton did imply a debriefing occurred when she mentions the FBI interviewing evacuees. (This detail is a bit tricky, however, as we'll see below.)
When I questioned her about the misinformation disseminated for days by the administration, most notably by Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice on Sunday news programs five days after the attack, she asked, "What difference does it make?"
That's not quite how it happened:

Johnson accuses Amb. Rice of "purposefully misleading" the public at 2:40. Clinton talks about tending to the injured evacuees until 3:40 -- remember this: it's an important detail worth Clinton discussing at length -- when she says that the American public was being provided with information that had been vetted by the intelligence community.

The Secretary talks about the fluidity of the situation until 4:10 when she's interrupted by Johnson, who asks his phone call question ... even though Clinton has basically spent the last 90 seconds explaining to the Senator that she did not make such a call to prevent politicizing the debriefing.

Hillary, clearly growing tired of the exchange by now, gamely continues to answer, but is again interrupted at 4:34 when Johnson dismisses her answer as an excuse. There's a few seconds of cross talk before Clinton refers Johnson to the Accountability Review Board (ARB) reports at 4:44.

She begins to differentiate between what is currently known and not known about the incident -- as in today, January 23rd, four months after the event -- when Johnson again interrupts her at 4:57 to reiterate his belief -- sans any evidence -- that the public was intentional misled about protests being the genesis of the consulate siege, saying that the American people could have known that "within days" of the attack, etc.

Finally, at 5:15; 2 minutes, 35 seconds and several interrupted attempts to answer the question later; Hillary has enough.

So it's a long way from Johnson's question to Clinton's answer.
If you don't expeditiously debrief the people who witnessed the attack, how can you understand who initiated it, what weapons they used and who may have been involved? How do you initiate a proper response if you don't know what transpired? How do you move properly to protect other American assets and people in the region? How do you know what failures occurred, so that you can immediately correct them, if you have not debriefed the very victims of those failures? And lastly, how do you tell the truth to the American people if you don't know the facts?
Except Clinton specifically says that the FBI "immediately" went to interview the evacuees at 3:15, rendering this entire graph pointless.

What Johnson's "phone call" meant at the morning hearing evolved several times over the course of the day. At the hearing it seemed like little more than public relation fact-checking exercise. Latter that morning it became a kind of mark of good character. In the early afternoon, it seemed to have something to do with Osama bin Laden. During happy hour is was about everything! But by dinner time Johnson settled on it being a bona fide professional intelligence-gathering technique when he referred to it as a "debriefing."

During the hearing Johnson says the following at 2:17: "The point I'm making is that a very simple phone call to these individuals could have ascertained immediately that there was no protest prior to this. I mean this attack started at 9:40 PM Benghazi time ... but then I'm going back to, again, Ambassador Rice, five days later going on the Sunday shows and, what I would say, purposefully misleading the American public."

Here's the thing: it's more than likely that such a phone call wasn't possible; that no one would have been on the other end to answer. Here's what ARB report says (page 27+):

At approximately 0630 local, all U.S. government personnel evacuated [the consulate] with support from a quasi-governmental Libyan militia. They arrived at the [Benghazi] airport without incident.  
Evacuees, including all wounded personnel, departed Benghazi on the chartered jet at approximately 0730 local. Embassy Tripoli staff, including the Embassy nurse, met the first evacuation flight at Tripoli International Airport. Wounded personnel were transferred to a local hospital, in exemplary coordination that helped save the lives of two severely injured Americans
At 1130 local, September 12, 2012, the Libyan government-provided C-130 evacuation flight landed in Tripoli with the last U.S. government personnel from Benghazi...
In coordination with the State Department and Embassy Tripoli, the Department of Defense sent two U.S. Air Force planes (a C-17 and a C-130) from Germany to Tripoli to provide medical evacuation support for the wounded. At 1915 local on September 12, Embassy Tripoli evacuees, Benghazi personnel, and those wounded in the attacks departed Tripoli on the C-17 aircraft, with military doctors and nurses aboard providing en route medical care to the injured. The aircraft arrived at Ramstein Air Force Base at approximately 2230 (Tripoli time) on September 12, just over 24 hours after the attacks in Benghazi had commenced.

Unfortunately, this next step requires some gruesome arithmetic. The ARB report says that there were seven Americans at the compound when the attack started. Four were killed during the attack. Two were "severely injured," one of who so badly that he is still apparently at Walter Reed Hospital. If the other person was anywhere nearly as "severely injured" as his colleague, it stands to reason that neither were in any physical condition to be debriefed until days, if not weeks, after the incident. That leaves only one American who was at the Consulate when the attack began remaining left to be debriefed, and the report is (intentionally) vague about his or her well-being upon evacuation.

We're suggesting that the declassified version of the ARB report insinuates that of the Americans who were at the Consulate when the attack began, the three survivors were so wounded that they were in no position to be debriefed until much later -- days, if not weeks.

So why didn't Hillary bring this up? Well, she did. It's how she began answering Johnson's question about "misleading the American public." Johnson didn't seem to care for that explanation, so he tries to cut in at 3:14, but Clinton keeping moving on and even goes on to address the allegation that Clinton, Rice or anyone else in the administration "purposely misled" anyone. That's sort of the prelude to all hell breaking loose.

The conclusion of Johnson's piece is, as usual, a mess:
Our diplomatic forces in Benghazi were denied the security they repeatedly requested for many months before Sept. 11, 2012. Secretary Clinton stated that she was not told of those desperate requests in the most dangerous region in the world. As a result, our people in Benghazi were ill-prepared to repel or avoid that attack, and four Americans were murdered. For many days after the event, the American people were also misinformed as to the nature and perpetrators of that attack.
That Johnson should equate the deaths of four American foreign service officers in the line of duty with Johnson's imagined conspiracy is as insulting to their memory as it is craven and demeaning to just about any discussion.

In truth, Benghazi is a failure of leadership — before, during and after the terrorist attack.  
To answer Secretary Clinton, it does make a difference. It matters enormously for the American public to know whether or not their president and members of his administration are on top of a crisis and telling them the truth.
All of this is just lip service. Johnson has no interest in finding 'the truth" about what happened in Benghazi. Most of the answers he purports to seek are actually in the ARB report. Johnson sole interest in Benghazi is for use as a political cudgel. Nothing will convince him that there wasn't a "talking points cover-up" designed to willfully mislead the American public, because, to be perfectly honest, Johnson's epistemology isn't all that different from 9/11 Truthers or other conspiracy theorists in so far as they each share an almost pathological inability to critically examine a brief that comfortably fits into their worldviews. Johnson loathes the Obama Administration, therefore all that they do isn't merely wrong, but criminally so.

Unfortunately, today was the best press day of Johnson's career in politics. Johnson's been trying desperately to earn media exposure like this since being elected to the Senate, but failing miserably, to get attention. Today has likely been the first day of his Washington career that his press secretary had to juggle multiple interview requests, and the lesson he's likely going to walk away from this experience is that people will pay attention to me when he's acting like an asshole.

So the next time Johnson brings up Benghazi -- and it will happen, folks -- let the reporter or the token Democrat on FOX or even Hillary Clinton  herself demand Johnson provide evidence to support his theory of a massive Benghazi "talking points cover-up." Anything: an affidavit from a witness, an internal State Department memo, video footage from the consulate. Anything. We already knows no such evidence exists -- we're just really interested in Johnston's explanation as to why that is.

Lastly, we want to point out the massive gulf between the events of the hearing as they are recorded on video for posterity versus Johnson's recollection of those only a dozen hours later. Johnson's own article demonstrates a person who is already confusing important details and forgetting critical facts. Some of his article is downright delusional. If Johnson's memory so poorly serves him over only the course of a work day, then imagine how hard it would be for the survivors of the Benghazi attacks to try and piece together what they witnessed after a full night of ducking enemy fire, the trauma of severe wounds, seeing several of their colleagues killed, and hour after hour of fearing for their lives?

Johnson's preposterous claim that a simple phone call would have straightened any confusion surrounding the Benghazi fiasco is, at best, a profoundly crass attempt to score some political points. At worse, it's an insult to the survivor's resilience. Either way, it doesn't belong in the United States Senate.