The Washington Post

Fool's Gold on April Fool's Day

Fittingly on April 1, The Washington Post unmasked some truths about American politics that seem like April Fool's Day leg-pulls. Thanks to Jaime Fuller of The Fix for collecting this batch of improbable truthiness:

  • The U.S. Senate voted in 1928 for funding to knock down the walls of its chamber because of bad air.

  • There actually is a rocket scientist in the U.S. House — Rep. Rush Holt of New Jersey — who proved he was smart by beating supercomputer Watson at Jeopardy!

  • A research librarian at the Jefferson library has posted a website containing quotes attributed to Thomas Jefferson that he never said. 

  • Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar raised $17,000 from ex-boyfriends for her Senate campaign.

  • Abraham Lincoln is sneaking on Jesus for most books written about him, Lincoln now has 15,000 devoted to his life.

  • "The Ron Paul Family Cookbook," which features recipes such as "How to Eat Like a Republican: Or Hold the Mayo, Muffy – I'm Feeling Miracle Whipped Tonight," has sold more than 400,000 copies.

What's Really Behind U.S. Inaction in Syria

There are potent reasons why President Obama has delayed a response to the Syrian government crossing his red line and using chemical weapons on its own citizens.

Risking a deepening image of presidential dithering, Obama continues to search for a measured response that doesn't repeat mistakes made by the United States in the 1980s in Afghanistan and further strain relations with Russia, which continues to protect the Bashar al-Assad regime. 

This week's report of a chemical weapon attack that may have killed as many as 1,500 Syrians makes Obama's tightrope walk even trickier.

The Washington Post's Max Fisher posted a blog listing five reasons for what appears as Obama inaction. First and foremost is the fear that the rebels, some of whom have affiliation with al-Qaeda, could be worse than the current regime. The United States learned that lesson when it sided with Afghanistan militants in resisting a Soviet invasion. The Russians got repelled, but the United States got sucked into a prolonged war against the Taliban and, at times, with the ruling Karzai government, purportedly a U.S. ally.

Obama's widely ridiculed "lead-from-rear" strategy in Libya resulted in a regime change. But it also resulted in a politically embarrassing episode with a militant attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi on the eve of the 2012 presidential election. You can understand Obama's hesitancy to burst in on another party where the United States will inevitably be the piñata.

Fisher says there isn't much political advantage for Obama to become bogged down in Syria, despite his red line ultimatum. He already is accused of public policy attention deficit for jumping from issue to issue. Now Obama, as evidenced by his 2-day bus trip to promote his college affordability agenda, is trying to focus on a few longer-term economic priorities.

Disappearing Veterans in Congress

America turned after World War II to veterans such as Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy to guide the fortunes of the nation. Now the last WWII vet in Congress has died, as the overall number of military veterans in Congress has dwindled.

New Jersey Democratic Senator Frank Lautenberg's death today ends a string of 115 WWII veterans who served in the U.S. Senate. But it also portends a declining number of veterans serving in Congress.

The Washington Post reports that as recently as the 111th Congress, which ended in January 2011, there were 26 members of the Senate who were veterans. With Lautenberg's death and the retirements of Iowa Senator Tom Harkin and South Dakota's Tim Johnson, that number could shrivel to as few as 12 sitting senators when the 114th Congress convenes in January 2015.

The U.S. House has a similar profile, according to the Washington Post. Only 19 percent of current House members saw active military service, which the newspaper says is the lowest percentage since WWII. 

"Sending American men and women to war is the most serious decision Congress can make," writes Chris Cilizza of the Post. "Fewer and fewer people making those decisions in the future will be able to speak from a position of experience and authority on the subject."

The Fist Behind the No-Tax Glove

Grover Norquist doesn't hold elective office, but wields huge sway over a group of Republican lawmakers who took his pledge to vote no on any tax increases.

Under the pressure of an approaching fiscal cliff and the wake of President Obama's re-election victory, some GOP members are wiggling away from their pledge to the president of the Americans for Tax Reform.

The Washington Post profiled Norquist last year, revealing he keeps the written pledges that lawmakers sign in a vault in Washington, DC. "When someone takes the pledge," Norquist told Jason Horowitz of The Washington Post, "you don't want it tampered with; you don't want it destroyed." That may or may not be a reflection on the caliber of politician he is dealing with.

The first pledge signers date back 25 years and include former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and supply-side economics advocate Jack Kemp, an early mentor to current House Budget Chair Paul Ryan.

Norquist hasn't been invited to White House negotiating sessions, yet he boldly predicts Republicans will hold the line against raising taxes. Or else, they may face a challenge from their political right in the next election, he adds. There are plenty of examples to show he isn't kidding or making an idle threat.

Of course, Norquist's adamant opposition to tax hikes isn't an end unto itself, though at times it seems like it. He is a fervent believer in smaller government. One of Norquist's most pungent lines is that he wants to see government shrink so he can "drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub."

The Part-Time Worker

Much was made about how many part-time workers contributed to the job growth in September. There are now 8.6 million Americans working on a part-time basis for "economic reasons." Some observers wonder whether this is the new normal or a conscious business response to, among other factors, the Affordable Care Act.

The news last week from the Bureau of Labor Statistics that the U.S. jobless rate dropped below the 8 percent mark for the first time in four years got its own scrutiny. Conservative pundits and some business leaders questioned whether the news was rigged to bolster President Obama's re-election bid.

Moving beyond the conspiracy theorists, others questioned the vitality of the economy when many of the new jobs were part-time.

The Washington Post cited published data by Paul Dales of Capital Economics indicating that the number of Americans working 30 hours or less per week actually has retreated to pre-recession levels. Many of the new part-timers are working between 30 and 34 hours per week. That may not be ideal, Dales admits, but it is has a more notable economic effect than if they were working only 20 hours per week.

Still, the personal tales of part-time workers are unsettling. Displaced workers and recent college graduates describe a job market that is unforgiving and jobless benefits that get exhausted. There are almost 4 million Americans who have been out of work for a year or more and their prospects for landing a job are even grimmer.

CNN broadcast a piece tracking the fortunes of part-time workers — a college graduate manning a movie theater concession stand, a displaced telecommunications executive who reads to young children and a long-time radio station employee who works three jobs, including at his own Internet radio startup.

The part-time workers CNN interviewed aren't particularly upset or bitter. They recognize their plight is tied to the sluggish national economic recovery. One woman said getting laid off from her previous well-paying corporate job gave her a chance to re-evaluate her life priorities. The Internet radio entrepreneur said his layoff gave him the freedom, at age 50, to try something he had always wanted to try.

The larger concern voiced by these workers and many others is the waste of talent. The movie-theater employee is selling popcorn instead of pursuing a career in photography after taking her college degree in fine arts. A 27-year-old data entry clerk at a bank wants to go to law school, but cannot pay off her undergraduate student loans, let alone take on the debt required to earn a law degree.

Wyden Walks Medicare Policy Tight Rope

His Medicare reform white paper co-authored with GOP presidential running mate Paul Ryan has Democratic Oregon Senator Ron Wyden in the political crosshairs of just about everybody.Democratic Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, who isn't even on the ballot this fall, nevertheless finds himself in the middle of a hard-fought, negative presidential campaign. And he isn't happy about it.

Wyden co-authored a provocative white paper on Medicare reform options earlier this year along with House Budget Chair and now GOP presidential running mate Paul Ryan. The Mitt Romney-Ryan campaign seized on the white paper — and Wyden — as evidence of bipartisan support for their approach to Medicare reform.

Wyden has gone to great pains, including a speech this week to the Portland Rotary, to say ‘no dice.’

Defending the white paper and his collaboration with Ryan, Wyden says what Romney has endorsed and House Republicans have passed is not consistent with the white paper's approach to "preserve the Medicare guarantee."

In an interview with Ezra Klein of The Washington Post, Wyden said the major differences between his views and those of Romney involve the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid. Romney and Ryan favor repeal of the Affordable Care Act and Wyden doesn't. The Ryan-inspired House budget would give states more freedom to run their Medicaid programs for low-income citizens, but also provide less money. Wyden says that will harm lower-income seniors who qualify for both Medicare and Medicaid.

Myths about the Middle Class

Reports of the death of the American middle class may be exaggerated and hope for its survival and success may lie in improved education and direct links to economic growth.As Barack Obama and Mitt Romney stalk middle class voters, a University of Arizona sociology professor offers some hints of where to look and what to expect.

In a piece published last week by The Washington Post, Lane Kenworthy says — contrary to political rhetoric — America's middle class is better off today, not just financially, but also in terms of enhanced quality of life.

"Income changes alone don't capture the enhanced quality of life that stems from greater access to information and entertainment through personal computers, smartphones, the Internet and cable TV, advanced in medical care such as MRIs and surgical techniques and more choices for all kinds goods and services," he wrote.

Kenworthy dispelled what he called the myth about economic growth benefitting the middle class. "Sadly, that's wishful thinking," he said. 

"Since the 1970s, the American economy has continued to grow fairly quickly, yet the middle class has seen a relatively small gain in income," Kenworthy noted. "Between 1979 and 2007, two peaks in the business cycle, the country's per capita GDP increased by 50 percent. During that same period, the average income of the middle three-fifths of households rose by less than 30 percent."

Hashtag Warfare

If politics is war, then Twitter is the neutron bomb. Politicians are engaging in hashtag warfare to stake out positions and target opponents without ever talking to a reporter or entering a TV studio.

You know you have a powerful weapon, says The Washington Post, when the President of the United States incorporates hashtags into his speeches, as he did last week — #dontdoublemyrate — in pressuring the GOP-led House to block an increase in student loan interest rates. After whipping up a student crowd in Chapel Hill that chanted the hashtag, there were almost instantaneously 20,000 tweets with the hashtag. 

Within 45 minutes, House Speaker John Boehner responded, using the hashtag, blaming Democrats for the student loan rate increase. Conservative groups seized on the hashtag to rip Obama over gas prices and lingering high unemployment rates, a risk you run in hashtag warfare.

Ann Romney chose Twitter to respond to criticism about her being a stay-at-home mom. Her tweet — "I made a choice to stay home and raise five boys. Believe me, it was hard work." — reframed the conversation in thousands of retweets. Critics changed the subject.

Twitter-bombing isn't just an American political phenomenon. It played a huge role in the Arab Spring upheavals. Reportedly the new president of Chile instructed his cabinet ministers to tweet to build grassroots support for his new policies.

Facebook has tons more users, but Twitter has become the go-to place to find out the latest news. That is just the kind of battlefront that attracts political operatives. Shots fired on Twitter wind up ricocheting on Facebook and, ultimately, populate searches on Google.

From Bugaboo to Booboo

GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney accused President Obama of spending too much time at Harvard, even though Romney attended the university longer and sent his three sons there.Calling someone elitist and out of touch because they attended Harvard isn't a new strategy. However, it is a novel argument when made by a candidate who spent even more time at Harvard, sent three children there, and donated thousands of dollars to the university.

And his Boston campaign headquarters is just across the river from Harvard.

In politics, you have to know how to deliver a zinger. But it's usually a good idea to taser your opponent, not yourself.

Basking in the trifecta of victories in this week's GOP presidential primaries, frontrunner Mitt Romney turned his guns on President Obama, saying he "spent too much time at Harvard," leaving him out of touch with mainstream America.

Obama did spend three years at Harvard, earning his law degree and working on the Harvard Law Review. It turns out Romney attended Harvard for four years, earning a law degree and a masters in business administration.

In addition to the math problem, Obama made it to Harvard from fairly humble circumstances, while Romney got there from a family whose dad was president of American Motors and governor of Michigan. 

Stormin' Norman to Retire

From college lineman to congressional quarterback, Norm Dicks has served in Congress 36 years and plowed billions back into Washington's economy and natural resources.Norm Dicks, who played guard for the University of Washington football team, but quarterbacked the state's congressional delegation, announced he won't seek re-election after serving 18 terms in the U.S. House. He is 71.

Dicks, like his mentor and former boss, Senator Warren Magnuson, has been a stalwart on the House Appropriations Committee, bringing home largesse to Washington. A native of Bremerton, Dicks protected his home state defense establishment, most recently helping secure a billion-dollar Boeing Air Force refueling tanker contract. The Bremerton Naval Base couldn't have had a more loyal, capable or unabashed defender.

But he also pressed for money to clean Puget Sound and Hood Canal, to restore the spotted owl and remove dams on the Elwha River on the Olympic Peninsula to return salmon runs.

"It's hard to quit. I love this job," Dicks told reporters as he announced his decision. "I learned from the greatest two senators — Magnuson and Senator Henry Jackson."

Senator Patty Murray, who handles spending issues on Washington's behalf in the Senate, called Dicks "a true Washington State institution. More than that, he is my mentor, my friend, my advisor, my teammate and my brother. He is our state's quarterback here in Congress. I can't imagine our delegation without him."

The Tangled Tale of Personal Privacy

Two stories on the same day in The Washington Post show the extreme pressure points on maintaining personal privacy. 

One describes U.S. government efforts to protect against potentially devastating international cyber attacks; the other points out user frustration with privacy policies by digital giants such as Google.

A story headlined, "White House, NSA weigh cybersecurity, personal privacy," talks about legislation to allow continuous, routine surveillance of civilian Internet activity.

Users won’t be able to opt out. If they don’t like the change, Google has said, they can avoid signing into their accounts or stop using Google products altogether, 

That’s easier said than done, experts say in the other Post story noted. For more than 350 million people using Gmail around the world, moving to a new e-mail program is perhaps more inconvenient than changing a mailing address or a bank account.

"Google unified privacy settings unsettle users" traces the concerns of users worried about the accumulation of personal data based on their searches, email content and downloaded videos,' the article says.

Trump Out, But Not Forgotten

Donald Trump's whirlwind presidential bid is now history, but his short-lived, volatile candidacy may be illuminating to his GOP colleagues. Even though he will be reduced in history as a footnote to this election, Trump soared in the polls with his in-your-face political style, reflecting a Republican yearning for someone to challenge President Obama toe to toe.

Washington Post political columnist Chris Cillizza described Trump's Icarus-like rise and fall as a cautionary tale for 2012 GOP contenders. He quotes senior Republican strategist Scott Reed as saying, "Donald Trump was an anti-establishment figure who demonstrated the importance of taking the debate right to Obama frontally and hard, which the eventual GOP nominee must do daily to win."

Rob Stutzman, a California GOp strategist, echoes the point. "He had the appeal of a candidate who would brawl with Obama on behalf of the rank and file and create contrast."

The lesson from Trump may be a hard pill to swallow for remaining candidates, Cillizza suggests. "Any sign of agreement — or even willingness to think about agreeing — with the President is viewed as capitulation within some non-insignificant element of the Republican party, many of whom identify closely with the tea party movement."