Monday, August 31, 2009

The Daily Strike-8/31/09-The Gang of Six

Good evening and welcome to the Daily Strike on this final day in August. There was virtually no news today in the political world, so I'll give you another August musing.

GANG OF SIX: Three tidbits of news today deeply troubled me. They all involved members of the so-called "Gang of Six," the Senate Finance Committee members who are attempting to fashion a bipartisan health care compromise. One of the Republican members, Chuck Grassley of Iowa, sent out a mailer to supporters asking for money. What was his selling point? Opposition to health reform! He is anticipating a challenge in next year's Republican primary, and wants his supporters to know that he is fighting against "Obamacare." Another negotiator, Mike Enzi of Wyoming, gave the Republican response to President Obama's weekly radio address, by spreading GOP falsehoods. Among his claims were that the Democrats wants to cut Medicare and use comparative effectiveness research to deny treatment to the disabled (a spin-off on Sarah Palin's death panel lie).

These are two of the six people we are entrusting President Obama's biggest domestic policy priority. All of the other committees of jurisdiction in the House and Senate have passed bills. All of those bills include the public option. Yet reform has stalled because the Gang of Six says that they need more time and that they'll be "ready when (they're) ready." So let's find out just who these people are:

Republicans: Chuck Grassley, Iowa. Grassley was last elected in 2004, when most Iowa voters had never heard of Barack Obama. He received 1.03 million votes, about 1/70th of Barack Obama's total. He has received $200,000 from health professionals, over $180,000 from insurance companies, and $145,000 from pharmaceutical companies. He recently said at a town hall meeting that people should fear that the government "will pull the plug on grandma."

Mike Enzi, Wyoming. Enzi won reelection last year with 189,000 votes in a state that is 96% white. For those of you keeping score, that's about .2 percent of President Obama's total. He has received about $500,000 combined from various health care stakeholders, mostly from insurers and pharmaceutical companies.

Olympia Snowe: Snowe is slightly less objectionable. She won reelection in the state of Maine with 389,000 votes, about 50,000 less than Obama received in her state last year. She gets over $300,000 from the health care industry, and Aetna is her 2nd biggest donor.

Democrats: Max Baucus, Montana. Max Baucus won last year with 345,000 votes. He was one of the top recipients of health industry money, raking in over $1.5 million in the 2008 cycle alone.

Kent Conrad, North Dakota. Senator Conrad, as we've mentioned goes on TV every weekend to remind the American people that Democrats don't have the votes to pass health reform, and has been a constant thorn in the side of Democrats who want to use expedited procedures to pass a good bill. He won reelection in 2006 with a whopping 149,o00 votes. He took about 5 times as much money from the health industry in 2006 than he won votes.

Jeff Bingaman, New Mexico. Usually a solid Seantor, Bingaman has decided to retreat into gang life. He won in 2006 with 383,000 votes.

So let's tally that up. Barack Obama won the election last year with about 70,000,000 votes. His most important policy initiative is resting in the hands of self-anointed kingmakers who won a combined 2.4 million votes over the past 6 years.

But the vote total is only one part of the story. It's not only undemocratic because they represent such a minuscule portion of the population. It's undemocratic because they are all major beneficiaries of the very system they're trying to reform. Even the supposed good guys in this group, like Baucus, have shown very little urgency or passion for getting this done. We have no idea what they do in their marathon meetings. And through it all, they insist that they be left alone as they spend months and months deliberating.

This gang is the best evidence that the institutions of our democracy are fundamentally undemocratic. Right now, it's the biggest obstacle to enacting health reform. It is, as Bill Maher called it, the "true death panel."

We'll see you tomorrow night.

The Weekly Strike-8/31-9/6

Good morning and welcome to the Weekly Strike. Thanks for hanging in there during my hiatus. One more week before the end of the Congressional recess, and the beginning of crunch time.

THE WHITE HOUSE: The President has returned to Martha's Vineyard to the White House to what is being billed as a "working vacation." So far, he has no public events scheduled, and he is set to leave for Camp David on Wednesday. The most valuable use of his time would be to engage in some serious soul searching. It's been a very difficult summer. The health care debate has become mired with town hall meetings, Congressional inaction, and Democratic infighting. Obama has overcome challenges and setbacks before. We know he has the intellectual capacity to do so. The key thing is whether he is continuing to heed advice solely from his "inside the beltway" advisers, or whether he is reading the commentary of those who really get it, like columnists Paul Krugman and E.J. Dionne. These people have come to conclusions that need to become ingrained in the President:

-Republicans have no interest in cooperating, and need to be cut out of the process entirely. They will do everything they can to make sure this effort fails. With maybe one or two exceptions, there is virtually no chance of getting any Republican votes for health reform, no matter what it looks like.

-Further concessions do not necessarily make the bill more likely to pass; rather they make the bill considerably worse and thus more politically dangerous.

-It's time to take some initiative. The time to let Congress work out the details while the President stands on the sideline have passed. It's time to show some real leadership.

-The selling point has to appeal to people emotionally. I was talking about this with The Big Picture this morning. There should be no more wonkishness, just endless repetition. The Big Picture drew up some "sum it up" talking points that I think are right on:

"We just really need to focus on saying that if you're a hardworking middle class person you're going to get good subsidies to make insurance affordable and insurance will actually mean real coverage, real security, real piece of mind, no more discrimination, rescission, medical bankruptcies. Second, for seniors we HAVE to do this to save their Medicare otherwise there will be rationing. Third, it's a moral outrage that 20,000 people die every year from being denied access to a doctor, and that (whatever the number) of bankruptcies happen. Obviously for all three of these you bring out some real people to make it real. And that's what we should be repeating over and over again."

-Finally, and most importantly, the mantra for Obama and the Democrats, in honor of Ted Kennedy, needs to be "PASS THE BILL." At the end of the day, all of these auxiliary issues are irrelevant. So are public opinion polls and fear of the next elected. Democrats were elected to deliver, and they must. No more excuses, no more compromise, just figure out a way to get 218 votes in the House, and 60 (or 51?) in the Senate.

Another issue on the horizon for the White House is the rapidly deteriorating situation in Afghanistan. This is becoming perilous for the country and the President. Casualties have been increasing at a disturbing rate over the past couple of months, and there still isn't any measurable progress (part of the problem is that we don't have specific measures to gauge progress). General McCrystal, who is leading the effort on behalf of NATO and the U.S. is saying that the situation is dire and deteriorating. The Taliban, not surprisingly to anyone who knows anything about Afghanistan's history, are proving tough to defeat. McCrystal is expected to ask for additional troops in the next couple of weeks. I'm not ready to say that this is Obama's Vietnam yet, but he needs to develop a clear plan that is not open-ended. He needs to set benchmarks to measure progress, and he needs to define a path to victory. This issue has not gotten a lot of press over the summer due to the health care debate, but it is going to be a major issue in the coming months.

That's it for now, we'll be back tonight for the Daily Strike.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Daily Strike-8/27/09-Recess

Good evening and welcome to the shortest Daily Strike ever. The Strike and Lady Strike are leaving tomorrow for a short little vacation, so the blog will be on hiatus through Monday morning. Next week is the last week of the month-long Congressional recess. Make sure to read The Big Picture's eloquent tribute to Ted Kennedy (and mine as well). Look forward to some exciting changes in the next couple of weeks, including the debut of a new contributor! Have a nice weekend!

The Big Picture: Tribute to Ted Kennedy

Building off the Strike's eloquent tribute to Senator Kennedy last night, I would like to focus on his remarkable combination of staunchness and effectiveness. The highest praise the Strike and I bestow on a politician is to be "staunch" - that is, to stick with your principles even as the rats jump off the ship and sell out, to focus on delivering for people, improving their lives, and not getting caught up in the cynical political games that consume most politicians, to carry the flame for what Ezra Klein called the "tradition that fought for social justice and equality, for decency and dignity, for peace between nations and for security within households. Ted Kennedy was part of a tradition. It did not begin with Ted Kennedy, and it does not end with him. The man may be irreplaceable. But the work can be carried on. "

But it can only be carried on if we remember the true lessons of Ted Kennedy's career. Ted Kennedy didn't bow to the backlash against Sixties liberalism - I read a story yesterday about him walking through South Boston, pelted by tomatoes from his erstwhile base of Irish Catholics bitterly opposed to him for his advocacy of school busing - and unlike this group of cowards we've got now, Kennedy stuck with his guns, always stood for civil rights, what he called "the great unfinished business of America." Ted Kennedy never apologized for his ideals, for his vision of an integrated, inclusive, equal-opportunity America, even as that vision was derided and mocked. So it makes me more than a little angry that these Republicans and "centrist" Democrats now pay him tribute, even as they spent their careers cowering before the big corporations that Kennedy took on, running away from their responsibilities to ordinary folks whose lives Kennedy immeasurably improved. As Ezra Klein said, "There is an impulse to homogenize the dead. To make sure they belong to all of us, rather than to the causes that defined their life. But Ted Kennedy didn't belong to all of us. He didn't even belong to all Democrats. He was not of the party that voted for more than a trillion in unfunded tax cuts but cannot bring itself to pay for health-care reform. Rather, he belonged to the party of Medicare and Medicaid, the Americans With Disabilities Act and the Children's Health Insurance Program, the Civil Rights Act and immigration reform. He belonged to the party that sought to advance the conditions and opportunities of the least among us. And he still does."

Meyerson pointed out that what is often forgotten from Kennedy's famed "the dream shall never die" speech is that this was not some vague "let's all come together and hold hands" kind of dream. No, it was a staunch dream, a dream that the government, and certainly the Democratic Party, should stand first and foremost for a fair society, one rooted in full employment, good jobs for good wages with good health care, economic security for all. He proclaimed, "I am asking you to renew the commitment of the Democratic Party to economic justice. I am asking you to renew our commitment to a fair and lasting prosperity that can put America back to work." What he said then was so true then, and is even truer now, so urgent then, even more urgent now. Will he learn from our mistake and heed his call?

"Let us pledge that we will never misuse unemployment, high interest rates, and human misery as false weapons against inflation. Let us pledge that employment will be the first priority of our economic policy. Let us pledge that there will be security for all those who are now at work, and let us pledge that there will be jobs for all who are out of work; and we will not compromise on the issues of jobs.

"These are not simplistic pledges. Simply put, they are the heart of our tradition, and they have been the soul of our party across the generations. It is the glory and the greatness of our tradition to speak for those who have no voice, to remember those who are forgotten, to respond to the frustrations and fulfill the aspirations of all Americans seeking a better life in a better land.
"To all those who are idle in the cities and industries of America let us provide new hope for the dignity of useful work. Democrats have always believed that a basic civil right of all Americans is that their right to earn their own way. The party of the people must always be the party of full employment.

"To all those who doubt the future of our economy, let us provide new hope for the reindustrialization of America. And let our vision reach beyond the next election or the next year to a new generation of prosperity. If we could rebuild Germany and Japan after World War II, then surely we can reindustrialize our own nation and revive our inner cities in the 1980s.

"Finally, we cannot have a fair prosperity in isolation from a fair society. So I will continue to stand for a national health insurance. We must -- We must not surrender -- We must not surrender to the relentless medical inflation that can bankrupt almost anyone and that may soon break the budgets of government at every level. Let us insist on real controls over what doctors and hospitals can charge, and let us resolve that the state of a family's health shall never depend on the size of a family's wealth."

Would that Barack Obama, and Congressional Democrats, and elite opinion-makers, re-read that speech, see it in the context of our current economic crisis and our health care crisis. Would that Obama and Congressional Democrats remember that Ted Kennedy was the most effective legislator of all-time not because he compromised away his principles, not because he apologized for what he stood for, not because he acted as if his programs wouldn't actually be that effective - as Obama has done, to my tremendous disappointment, when he "promotes" the public plan in health care by saying it really won't be that effective, private companies will still do fine, it's too bad government. How about forcefully, passionately, advocating for programs that protect people against catastrophe, that deliver people the health care they need? We don't apologize for public schools, or public roads. Why should we apologize for public health care? Especially when Medicare - once subject to the same ridiculous attacks - is an enormously popular GOVERNMENT program. Ted Kennedy believed wholeheartedly that government could be a force for good, that it must be a force for good, and then he went out and DELIVERED. Let's stop the defensiveness, the apologizing, the compromising, the selling-out - let's honor Ted Kennedy by being staunch and effective, standing up for what we believe in, and then getting it done.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Daily Strike-8/26/09-Remembering Ted Kennedy

Good evening and welcome to the Daily Strike, on what is a very sad day for all of us. Tonight, we reflect on the legacy of the late Senator Ted Kennedy.

THE LION: I was really struck with sadness this morning upon hearing of the passing of Edward M. Kennedy. The 77-year old Senator, who has represented Massachusetts since 1962 died last night of complications relating to a brain tumor. Pretty much every good piece of legislation in the past 40 years has Ted Kennedy's name on it. Title IX, COBRA health insurance, the American with Disabilities Act, SCHIP and this year's public service bill are just a few of the bills Kennedy championed that made life better for countless Americans.

We all know that he was a fierce advocate of liberal policies. We know too that he was a skilled legislator who was one of the great deal makers in Senate history. But something else sticks out for me when I think about Ted Kennedy. I came of age in a fundamentally conservative era. For the first 22 years of my life, 14 were during Republican Presidencies. Even the lone Democratic President in my lifetime continued and often perpetuated policies that I profoundly disagreed with. The normal political order from 1980-2008 was massive redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich, the unraveling of our social safety net, deregulation policies that benefited fatcats at the expense of the American worker and unnecessary military adventurism. Our political ethos was soiled with an antipathy toward the poor, a deep seeded resentment toward racial and ethnic minorities, and the celebration, praise and glorification of selfishness and greed. It would have been easy for all of us to become disillusioned with politics, and we all did. How many of us made quips after the 2004 election about moving to Canada?

But even through this dark era, as Paul Simon would say, "in the clearing stood a boxer." It gave me great comfort that there was someone in the halls of power that gave voice to the voiceless, who believed in the liberal ideals of equality of opportunity, shared prosperity and the search for the common good. Even if he was sometimes a lone ranger, and he often was, we knew that our cause was always his concern.

Out of this lost period came an era of great hope. Barack Obama's election as the first African American President gave us part of the embodiment of Ted Kennedy's vision. A self-described "skinny kid with a funny name," with hard work, hope, and dedication, became President of the United States. This enormous triumph seemed to be the most appropriate culmination of Ted Kennedy's life's work.

But unfortunately, Ted Kennedy's biggest dream has yet to pass. Lost in all the noise of the last couple of months, all of the town hall meetings, all of the delays and obstruction, is that 47 million Americans still don't have health care, and millions more live with the insecurity that if they get sick, they could lose everything. Now that Ted has left us, we can't let up. We know that his cause endures, and we know it's our responsibility to see that his dream will never die.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Daily Strike-8/25/09-The Economy and the Economist

Good evening and welcome to the Daily Strike. It's too depressing to discuss health reform today, so we're taking the day off. All I will say is that Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) doubts a bill can be done by Christmas, and Senator Arlen Specter (D-PA) says his views on reform have changed because of the town hall meetings. Ugh.

THE ECONOMY: The White House released its revised budget estimates today, conveniently saving the announcement until Congress and the President had both skipped town. The number are not good. The 10-year deficit projection rose from $ 7 trillion to $9 trillion, and our national debt will make up 76% of GDP by 2019, the highest since World War II. Republicans, of course, used this opportunity to say that health care reform is even less doable, with such a high deficit. The ranking member of the House Ways and Means Committee, Dave Camp (MI) declared that if the health care bill wasn't already dead, "it is now." Our friend Ezra Klein reminds us why that kind of talk is misleading at best, and nihilistic at worst. President Obama says he won't sign a bill that increases the deficit. The worst deficit projection we've seen from any health bill was a ten year $200 billion tag on the House measure. That's a drip in the bucket compared to the Bush tax cuts (not paid for), Medicare Part D (not paid for), the War in Iraq (not paid for) and even the FY 2010 Defense budget, which is over $500 billion. I don't see Camp saying that those proposals should be "dead." Ezra wisely points out that when Republicans controlled the government, they never paid for anything. Because of this, they were able to build an association with the public between spending and deficit spending.

Certainly, there are areas in the federal budget that need to be cut to help bring down the deficit. Defense and agriculture subsidies come to mind immediately. But the point that is NEVER emphasized in the media, is the deficit skyrockets when the economy is in deep recession. During a downturn, when unemployment is high and GDP decreases or remains stagnant, tax revenues decrease. That's why, despite what Republicans might say, the government must continue to spend money to stimulate the economy and get us out of recession.

THE ECONOMIST: The President today renominated Ben Bernanke to be chairman of the Federal Reserve for the 4 year term beginning in January of 2010. I have mixed feelings on this announcement. On the one hand, Bernanke was asleep at the switch and was blindsided by the housing and credit busts. On the other hands, his unprecedented, bold action over the last year has helped bring the economy back from the brink. Even Paul Krugman thinks so. Plus, the alternative almost certainly was Larry Summers, chair of the Economic Council, who probably would be much worse than Bernanke. Bernanke's job will not be easy. At some point, the Fed is going to have to scale back some of the measures it has taken to increase liquidity in the system. Right now, short-term interest rates are basically at zero. As the economy starts to recover, that rate will have to increase lest we get stuck with double digit inflation. It won't be fun to have to take money out of the system when we will still likely have high unemployment and slow growth.

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Daily Strike-8/24/09-A Clarification and a Dialogue

Good evening and welcome to the Daily Strike. The big news is today is that Attorney General Eric Holder is appointing a special prosecutor to investigate CIA interrogation abuses. The interrogators themselves are immune from investigation (despite what this numbskull says) nor will it investigate the lawyers like Jay Bybee and John Yoo. It's more a chance for each political party to do some posturing. So we'll leave a discussion of that decision to other blogs.

CLARIFICATION: One argument I've been hearing from conservatives and town hall protesters is that health care reform is "unconstitutional." This may sound like a catchy criticism, but it makes absolutely no sense. The rationale for this view, according to these people, is that there is nothing in the constitution that specifically gives the government the authority to provide health care. For one, if health care reform were unconstitutional, Medicare would have been struck down 44 years ago, the day it was signed. That's government-run, government administered health care. Oh yeah, and there would be no Social Security either. Or public education. Or intelligence community. The founding fathers knew that Congress would need to act on problems not foreseeable in the 18th Century. That's why they put "protect the general welfare" in the preamble, and the "necessary and proper" clause in Article 1. There are those, like Ron Paul, who really believe that almost everything Congress does is unconstitutional because it's not something directly authorized by the constitution. But most people making that argument haven't quite taken it to its logical conclusion.

DIALOGUE: The Big Picture and I today talked about why some of the health care lies (death panels etc.) have become so salient. Here's our dialogue from earlier today:

The Big Picture: You know what's crazy though, and demands some analysis - that a bunch of made-up stuff about health care resonates so strongly, even though it's completely untrue and just so bizarre and counter intuitive, while Rev. Wright is not an issue, even though that really was Obama's spiritual guide, the officiator at his wedding, the environment he came out of, saying extremely radical things, for decades. I think that contrast is so strange on its surface. But you look into it, and you realize 3 things: 1. very powerful corporate interests weren't actually threatened by Jeremiah Wright, but they are by health care reform, 2. ultimately Rev. Wright wasn't threatening their status, threatening their sense of security, in the way that health care reform supposedly would, 3. (the lesson from this) Obama confronted it head-on, elevated the debate, put it in context, spoke from the heart and really connected. Might be a good idea.
But still, it's a strange contrast. Last year we thought that maybe the Rev. Wright stuff just wouldn't work for the Republicans because the country had changed, that kind of demagoguery just didn't play anymore, would turn off more people than it would bring in. But these attacks are even more wild and unfair than the GOP Trust ads just playing his speeches. I guess that signifies we're in a period of churn, hopefully this is some death throes of the Lost Period and it will prove to be the exception. I'm concerned though that the lack of exploitation of Rev. Wright will prove to be the exception.

The Strike:
That’s an interesting point you bring up about Wright. I think the two big reasons it didn’t resonate that much (and remember it was a BIG thing for awhile, certainly cost him some late primaries) is that it didn’t directly effect people’s lives. There was no perception that anything Wright said would take something away from them. That’s what they think about health care. Also, as you said, Obama took on the issue immediately and helped neutralize it. I’m, I think, slightly more skeptical than you about the power of corporate interests. I obviously know that they do have a lot of power, and can help control the terms of debate, but if you listen to what the town hall people say, it doesn’t sound anything like talking points from big business. Maybe their influence extends to the opinion-makers, I guess.

The Big Picture:
That is a good point. But I think the general corporatist mindset just so permeates the public discussion, it's so insidious, it underlies everything. Really its biggest effect is in creating the conditions in which we hold this debate - the current problems with the health care system, the proposed solutions, why they're so difficult to enact, why the problems are so difficult to begin with, why it costs so much, where we get the money for it, the kind of people who are in Congress dealing with it (or not) - all that is so critically influenced by corporate money, corporate interests, and of course all the people who work for these corporations and their families. The power of right-wing libertarian ideology is also directly tied to corporate money, corporate interests. Even going back to my thesis - clearly the racial anxieties actually existed, but they were translated into a powerful movement only by the California Real Estate Association, who pounded home all the conservative slogans, helped change people's minds about government in general. If the balance of power between corporations and unions/public interest organizations was shifted, the effect permeates everything.

That's it for tonight, folks. See you tomorrow! Leave comments!

The Weekly Strike-8/24-8/30

Good morning and welcome to the Weekly Strike. I apologize for a few days without any entry, we too are enjoying a bit of summer down time. Please read up on some of our previous entries and leave comments!!

THE WHITE HOUSE: Not only is Congress on recess this week, but the President has just embarked on a week long vacation, the first of his Presidency. He is staying at an estate on Martha's Vineyard until next Sunday with his family and a few close friends. This might be a good chance for the President to let the health care debate simmer down a little bit. I hope it also proves to be time for the President to reflect on his strategy on pursuing health insurance reform, and make changes as necessary. We don't expect him to make any public statements (barring any unforeseen events), but we look forward to seeing him rested and invigorated come next week.

Just because the President is on vacation doesn't mean that the forces opposing reform will quiet down. In this morning's Washington Post, RNC chair Michael Steele wrote a dangerously misleading and nihilistic op-ed, ostensibly outlining the GOP's new "Seniors Bill of Rights." The party that opposed Medicare, and relatively recently threatened to shut down the government if it wasn't substantially cut, now apparently opposes the Obama plan because it includes "cuts to Medicare." Of course, the bills do no such thing. They aim to cut inefficiencies in the system that will have no impact on the services seniors receive. By the way, I'm surprised after all this time that Republicans would want to stick their necks out and defend socialized medicine, aren't you?

Steele also refused to repudiate the "death panel" lie. He says exactly what the bill actually does, which is to cover end-of-life counseling under Medicare, but he makes an unsubstantiated claim that this could lead to "rationing" because "while nonthreatening at first, something that is quite normal for a family to do becomes troublesome when the government gets involved." Of course he didn't provide any evidence, just an anti-government ideology taken to an illogical extreme. He gives the same nonsensical "analysis" of comparative effectiveness research by saying, without any justification whatsoever, that such research could actually lead to "rationing based on age." The research is designed, as anyone with any remote knowledge of health policy would tell you, to give doctors advice as to which treatments are most effective.

Steele himself has admitted that he "doesn't do policy," so I think it would be better for everyone if he kept these fear mongering, nihilistic musings to himself.

At least Democrats are falling in line, right? Wrong! "Independent Democrat" Joe Lieberman said yesterday that Congress should scrap the whole bill and approach these issues incrementally. The recipient of government-funded health care said on CNN yesterday that we can institute some insurance market reforms, but that when it comes to extending insurance coverage to all Americans, "there's no reason we have to do this now." Meanwhile, Mr. Thorn-in-the-side himself, Senator Kent Conrad, said that it is inadvisable for Democrats to use reconciliation (a budget procedure that allows bills to pass with 51 votes instead of the usual 60), and it is also not a good idea to split the bill in two, as discussed last week. He says that the bill must cost "substantially less" than the $1 trillion it costs right now. Of course Conrad has no understanding that cuts would actually affect real people. Should middle-class Americans not get a needed government subsidy to afford health insurance because Kent Conrad got sticker shock? Once again, Democrats continue to undermine their own party and their own President.

Looking on the bright side, it appears that there will be fewer town hall meetings this week with members of Congress, so we don't have to see crazy protesters constantly on cable news. Maybe this period of "benign neglect" can help us regain control of the dialogue on this issue when Congress returns in two weeks.

That's it for us this morning. Because the week is expected to produce little in terms of political news, posting will be light. See you this evening!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Daily Strike-8/20/09-The Two Bill Solution?

Good evening and welcome to the Daily Strike. I hope you've enjoyed some of our August musings. Back to a more traditional Daily Strike tonight:

HEALTH CARE: President Obama did something he really needed to do today: rally the army that elected him. Obama spoke today at an event at the DNC to discuss health care reform strategy with core supporters. The President told supporters that getting elected was the easy part; achieving change is more difficult. I think all of his supporters have had that reality set in this summer. He talked a lot about how difficult it is to sell reform with all that misinformation out there, and said that to get that information, one simply has to "pick up a remote and turn to a certain channel." A Fox News reference is always good way to fire up a liberal crowd. On substance, it seems that he still hasn't quite learned his lesson. He said that the public option will be a good way to "keep insurance companies honest." But he again insisted that it is only one small part of reform. He may be right substantively, but he needs to know what fires up his base. Liberals care about the public option because it helps fulfill a longtime progressive dream of the government recognizing health care as a right and not a privilege. Sure, opposing gay marriage was just a "sliver" of Bush's compassionate conservative agenda, but he talked about it a lot, because he knew it would fire up his base. Plus, a new poll out today shows that if you present the public option as a plan you can "choose" under health reform, it gets extremely high approval. How about going around the country explaining that every single day? Support goes way down when people are asked directly whether they support a "public option."

Meanwhile, there is a very interesting procedural idea coming out of Democrats in Congress. As you know, Democrats have the power to pass (at least parts) of health care reform via reconciliation, an arcane rule that only requires 50 votes in the Senate instead of the 60 needed to break a filibuster. Because of the so-called Byrd rule, only measures directly dealing with the budget can be part of a reconciliation bill. Coincidentally, the budget-related measures in health care, like raising revenue, subsidies, and the public option, also are the most politically contentious. So Democrats have floated the idea of doing health care in two parts. One bill will contain the more popular parts of reform, like new rules on insurance company practices, and the creation of the health insurance exchange. This bill would pass through regular order and would be subject to a 60 vote threshold. The controversial parts of the bill would be passed under reconciliation.

On its face, this seems like a pretty good idea. Nervous centrist Democrats could still support the popular parts of the bill, while not having to walk the plank on the less popular parts. The Big Picture wisely notes that this is an optimum solution for nervous Democrats, because they almost certainly want something to pass, they just don't want to be responsible for it because they might take a short-term political hit. Republicans would be forced to vote against the popular portion of the bill, and won't have the excuse that they were actually voting against "government-run health care." Numbers guru Nate Silver estimates that there are 43 solid votes for the public option in the Senate, with about 15 or so Senators undecided. It would be a lot more difficult to whip 17 votes than it would to whip 7. There are a couple of reasons why I think this scheme may not work. First, its success depends on the procedural prowess and fighting spirit of Majority Leader Reid, both of which are severely lacking. Secondly, you might get a couple of Democrats who are so upset at this procedural maneuver that they vote against the 60 vote bill. One of them almost certainly will be the increasingly intolerable Kent Conrad of North Dakota. We would need the support of every Democrat to get this done, assuming Senator Kennedy could show up to vote. If Democrats don't agree to this, we would have to make them filibuster the popular bill. I would love to see Ben Nelson on the floor, dehydrated and about to collapse, holding up a health care bill because of procedural objections. Does Harry Reid have the guts to do this to his own members? Probably not, but it's worth a try. This would increase the chance that we'd get a bill that actually works instead of one that's been watered down to appease the wafflers. I'm sure we'll get some "you can't do that's!" from Republicans and the good-government-firsters at elite media institutions like the Washington Post. But if it helps to deliver better health reform, you have to do what you have to do.

CHARLIE COOK: I came home today feeling pretty good, getting ready to cook a nice dinner, when I read this terrifying prediction from political prognosticator Charlie Cook. He seems to think the Democrats have lost control this summer, and that they're destined to lose a lot of seats in the next Congressional election. He seems pretty exuberant about this possibility. The Democrats have had a tough few weeks, for sure, and their approval ratings have gone down, as have the President's, but I think Cook's prediction is pretty excessive at this stage of the game. Democrats still lead Republicans on most generic congressional ballot polls I've seen, and Republicans remain deeply unpopular, despite the sinking popularity of the Democrats. And while Obama's approval rating, which stands at a new low of 51% according to Gallup, is not superb, it's not that bad either. Bush had approval ratings at this level in 2004, and Republicans made gains in both Houses of Congress.

Democrats should be concerned about declining popularity numbers, but they need to react to these concerns in the right way, which is to DELIVER for people. I've said it once, I've said it a hundred times, if we continue infighting and we can't come through for the American people, we will get clocked in 2010. If we come together and pass strong legislation, we may take a short term hit, but our long term prospects will be vastly improved.

That's it for tonight, see you tomorrow!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Daily Strike-8/19/09-The Most Important Numbers

Good evening and welcome to the Daily Strike. Thanks for hanging tough through my absence yesterday, and to the Big Picture, Picturette, and friends who gave us an interesting dialogue on Whole Foods. Time for some more August recess musings.

NBC NEWS/WALL STREET JOURNAL POLL: A poll yesterday released by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal tell, I think, the complete story as to why the fight over health care reform has become increasingly difficult during the dog days of summer. First, the basics. Approval for the President's overall job performance is down to its lowest point, with 51 percent approving and 40 percent disapproving. His approval on health care is even lower, with only 41 percent approving of the job he's doing on health care, with 47 percent disapproving. 36 percent of respondents thought the plan is a good idea, while 42 percent think it's a bad idea. What's most interesting though is the huge effect misinformation is playing in cutting the plan's popularity. Amazingly, 55 percent of people believe the plan will cover illegal immigrants (it doesn't), 54 percent think it will lead to government-run health care (it won't), 50 percent believe it will cover women's abortions (it probably won't) and perhaps most shockingly, 45 percent think that the government is going to make decisions as to when to stop care for the elderly (patently false). A new, frankly shocking, PPP poll today said that 39 percent of Americans want to "keep the government out of Medicare." Disgusting.

The silver lining in all of this is that if you actually describe what the bill is, it gets the support of a small majority, 53%. Not great, and down slightly from last month, but still solid. So the bottom line is that there is an almost 20 point discrepancy when you ask if people support the "Obama" health plan, and when you actually describe what's in the plan. That signifies two things: a massive failure in messaging from the Obama team, and successful right-wing misinformation campaign. Crazy theories like "death panels" somehow have been portrayed by most of the mainstream media as a legitimate debate point, and a nihilistic Republican party, so interested in bringing down this President, will not repudiate these wild assertions. Exhibit A today was RNC chairman Michael Steele who wouldn't refute the death panel rumors.

It's clear that to close this discrepancy, we need to seriously revamp our campaign strategy. I have a few recommendations. A lot of these recommendations we've discussed before, but they bear repeated.

1. Commit to single set of policy proposals. The White House has spent enough time deferring to Congress and letting them fill in the details. The more ambiguous the plan is, the more likely it is to be demagogued. As much as I am against, in principal, boiling a complicated issue into bullet points, I think it would really help the White House in this case. Our pal Mr. Ezra Klein suggests this piece of work from Families USA.

2. Make the appeal emotional. When one side is talking about death panels, and the other is talking about bending the cost curve, it's pretty obvious who's gonna win the debate. He needs to make it personal. This is one thing Obama has not yet mastered. He seemed headed on the right track today when he spoke to liberal faith leaders on a conference call. He talked about the importance of health reform as a "moral imperative."

3. Give a prime time address from the Oval Office. The problem with town hall meetings and press conferences is that it's tough to get past the filter of media. An address from the oval office is a way to make the appeal serious, Presidential, if you will. When Presidents make announcements on impending wars, they make them from the oval office, because you can look right in the eye of the American people from some of the most hallowed ground in the country. Doing this will also give him 20 minutes of uninterrupted airtime, and won't leave him vulnerable to off-topic questions. He can keep the message as focused as possible. This would be a great thing to do when the Congress comes back from its August recess.

4. Bring out the big guns. Who are the two most well-liked, trusted voices in the Democratic party? Bill and Hillary Clinton. I don't care if Hillary's the Secretary of State, we need her to help in this effort. We need these two heavyweights to get out there and take some of the pressure off Obama.

You need to combine these tactics with a revised strategy with Congress. It should be obvious now, but Republicans need to be cut from all negotiations. Chuck Grassley, the chief negotiator of health care reform, has not only fed the fire of this death panel garbage, but says he wouldn't support a perfect bill if it didn't get more than a few Republican votes. Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-AZ) says that Republicans won't support the co-op alternative to the public option. When we make a concession on health reform, it gains us no Republican support. Republicans have awful ratings on health reform, but they couldn't care less. As Ezra notes, a kamikaze mission is successful if you bring down the target. The key negotiations will be between conservative and liberal Democrats. We've had our problems with conservative Democrats, but at least they have incentive to see the bill succeed (even if sometimes they don't realize it).

These steps may seem obvious, and they are. This is a major test for Obama. All of us have the temptation to stubbornly continue the same strategy, even if it's failing. Bush did so for years in Iraq. Obama has the intellectual capability to realize that his tactics are not working. I hope he uses it.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Big Picture: Postscript

In the spirit of fairness, I wanted to add on what our libertarian friend sent back to me. To a degree, I agree with him, and I'll be the first to admit that Whole Foods is a scapegoat for our frustration at the difficulty of getting necessary things done.

Fair enough. I assumed that you would like Whole Foods relative to
other grocery stores, but pursuing a more systemic critique may result
in eschewing those kind of comparisons.

I still don't understand why people who previously shopped at Whole
Foods would start to boycott now. John Mackey owns 1/140 of Whole
Foods; 99.3% of profits don't go to him. He expressed his private
opinion about healthcare, an issue mostly unrelated to Whole Foods'
operations. He only has made small political donations to the
Libertarian Party, a perpetual loser, so he could likely increase his
donations 100 times to $100,000 and still have zero impact on actual

I do not know Mackey's opinions on transportation, education, or the
FDA. Do you? Has he engaged in any activism against your cherished
goals and values beyond this WSJ op-ed? On unions, he seems to oppose
outside unions but wants the laws prohibiting company unions to be
repealed (

The Daily Strike-8/18/09-Sick Day

Good evening and welcome to the Daily Strike. The Strike is recovering from being a bit under the weather today, so we're gonna take the night off and come roaring back tomorrow. In the meantime, I'll leave you with a funny exchange between The Big Picture, a conservative blogger, The Picurette, and a libertarian friend of the Picture duo. As you may know, the CEO of Whole Foods penned an anti-health reform op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, which argued against a "government takeover of health care." Whole Foods, with it's latte drinking liberal clientele, also does not allow its workers to unionize. Some of us have decided that the best solution is to boycott Whole Foods, so they know that their shoppers don't appreciate their politics. Let's see what these people think:

Conservative Blogger: This site has been linked by several lefty blogs, Andrew Sullivan?s
blog, and a few discussion boards?all on the Whole Foods topic. So
here now, a few disorganized thoughts in response to comments posted
here and elsewhere.

1) Several commenters have lectured me on free speech and how using
consumer power to punish companies you don?t like is part of the free
market (inevitably followed by something like, ?some libertarian you
are!?). You?re correct!

But I never said you don?t have the right to boycott Whole Foods. Nor
did I say there?s anything wrong with the general principle of
spending money at companies whose practices you admire, and not
spending money at those you don?t. Here?s how it breaks down: Mackey
has the right to express his opinion on health care. You have the
right to boycott his company because you don?t like that opinion. And
I have the right to say you?re a moron for doing so.

2) The reason the boycott is moronic is that you?re punishing a
company that does everything the left thinks a company should do in
just about every other area (save for a few, noted below) solely
because its CEO expressed opinions about health care that you don?t
like. And I don?t mind that you disagree with Mackey?s opinions. But
if they offend you, you?re way too damned sensitive. He didn?t say, ?I
think all Americans should have access to health care . . . except for
black people.? That would be offensive. He put forth some proposals
that he thinks would make the health care system more efficient. You
can disagree with those proposals. But if you?re offended by them, you
really have a low tolerance for offense.

3) That?s the crux of why I think the boycott is ill-considered,
reactionary, and foolish. You?re saying, ?These opinions are so
horrifyingly offensive, they outweigh all the good your company does,
and therefore, I?m going to punish you, your employees, and all of
your suppliers.? See, I find that offensive. And yes, that?s in part
because I happen to agree with most of Mackey?s recommendations.

4) I say in part because I also think the general premise is
ridiculous. I shop at Costco. A lot. If the CEO of Costco wrote an
op-ed calling for a single payer health care system, I?d shrug, maybe
write a blog post about why I think he?s wrong, and then I?d probably
go to Costco this weekend to buy some dog food, some meat, and to try
to eat my membership dues in free samples. Now, if the CEO of Costco
wrote an op-ed calling for genocide against redheads, then yeah, I?d
stop shopping there. But calling for a boycott of a conscientious
company over its CEO endorsing proven ideas like HSAs and mainstream
policies like tort reform is an attempt to push good ideas you
disagree with to the fringe. It?s a way of zoning your opponents best
arguments out of the realm of civilized debate. In other words, it?s a
way to marginalize your opponents without actually having to debate

5) Some commenters say they?re boycotting Whole Foods because it?s too
expensive. Okay. So. You want a company that pays its employees well,
gives them great benefits, demands high environmental and humane
treatment standards from its suppliers, caters to a variety of dietary
restrictions, offers organic produce, and manages to keep its prices
low so working class people can shop there. Oh, and it can?t be part
of the ?industrial supply chain,? either, whatever that means. Good
luck! Of course, you all hate Walmart because it does keep prices low,
but does so by paying its employees less and pressuring its suppliers
for lower wholesale prices.

I guess we could just have the government grow, process, and
distribute all the food. That seems to have worked really well in
North Korea. But then if the government is the only food supplier, how
could you wage a boycott when the government doesn?t let the food
workers unionize?

Hey, just asking!

6) Speaking of unions, a few others have said they?re boycotting Whole
Foods because Mackey won?t let his employees organize. But as noted,
his employees have high rates of job satisfaction, and they?re paid
better and have better benefits than the unionized employees at other
grocery chains. So what?s the problem? If Mackey?s opposition to
unions is your reason for hating Whole Foods, sorry, but you don?t
really care about workers. You care about unions.

7) Some have said the answer lies in farmers? markets and co-ops.
Farmers? markets and co-ops are swell if you?re a yuppie commune
member or an urbanite foodie. But they aren?t going to feed entire
cities. If it makes you feel good to shop at those places, go ahead. I
love my local farmers? market. Mine has great heirloom tomatoes. But I
also realize that it?s only open five months out of the year, only
sells what can be grown locally, and its stock can be limited by bad
weather, pests, and just about any other variable that can hurt a
harvest. Chain stores utilize the economies of scale. They replicate
suppliers, so if something goes wrong with one farmer or a drought
hits one part of the country, they can back it up with food from
another. So you can go ahead and feel morally superior by shopping at
the farmers? market, but don?t pretend that you?re helping the poor.
Big companies and industrial farming are why poor people in America
don?t starve to death anymore. They?re also why America feeds a good
percentage of the rest of the world. I too think corporations can be
evil. But there?s no question that industrial farming has immeasurably
improved and extended our lives.

8) Why is it that the left is so stridently pro-local when it comes to
commerce, but when it comes to government, everything must be
nationalized, uniform, and one-size-fits-all?

9) John Mackey opposes single payer health care, preferring to keep
health insurance private and competitive. Lefties are angry with his
decision to write an op-ed in support of this position, so they?re
going to take their business to other grocers whose politics are more
in line with their own.

Huh. Just curious, if we get single payer, and the government does
something you don?t like, where are you going to take your business?

I think the cool kids call this this irony.

10) A few emailers took offense to the term ?leftists,? or ?lefties.?
Is that pejorative now? Well, okay. What would you like to be called?
As I understand it, ?liberal? went out of vogue in the late 1980s.
Which is fine, because as a libertarian, I?d actually like to have
that word back.

Sorry, but I?m not using ?progressive.? It?s a loaded term which
implies that the people who disagree with you are opposed to progress.
I disagree with you more often than not. And I don?t consider myself
regressive. I just have a different concept of progress than you.
Also, I don?t quite understand why that word is so popular right now.
You do realize that the progressives of the early 20th century were
generally anti-abortion, pro-eugenics, and pro-prohibition, don?t you?
More than a few of them?including progressive hero Woodrow Wilson-were
also ardent segregationists.

But I digress. What exactly should I call you that won?t give offense?

11) If you?re coming here from another website and have made snide
cracks about Fox News, hating brown people, supporting unjust wars, or
otherwise expressed the tired idea that libertarians are just
Republicans who smoke pot, you?ve embarrassed yourself. Read up a
little on what we do here, then get back to me.

12) Mackey didn?t deliberately offend his customers, as some have
suggested. He didn?t spit in your face, or, as one commenter so
delicately put it, he didn?t ?squeeze a turd in [your] punch bowl.? He
just overestimated you.

You see, he shared his ideas on health care reform, thinking that you,
being so famously open-minded and all, might take to a few of them, or
that it at least might start a conversation. I guess he felt he?d
built up some cache with you, and wanted to introduce you to some new
ideas. His mistake wasn?t in intentionally offending his customers.
He?s a businessman who has built a huge company up from the ground.
I?m sure he knows you don?t deliberately offend your customers. His
mistake was assuming you all were open-minded enough consider these
ideas without taking offense?that you wouldn?t throw a tantrum merely
because he suggested some reforms that didn?t fall in direct line with
those endorsed by your exalted Democratic leaders in Washington. In
retrospect? Yeah, it was a bad move. Turns out that many of you
weren?t nearly mature enough to handle it.

Hey, the guy isn?t perfect!

13) For the record, over the years I?ve had conservative friends who
have refused to shop at Whole Foods solely because they don?t like the
politics of other people who shop there. I?ve told them I think
they?re idiots, too.

MORE: One more point: Several commenters say it was the Thatcher quote
at the beginning of the op-ed that annoyed them most. As I understand
it, that was added by the WSJ editors, not Mackey. And it?s true! Call
it ?socialism? or something else, but the federal government is
running historically and frighteningly high deficits, as well as
unfunded mandates for entitlements amounting to hundreds of thousands
of dollars for every U.S. citizen. That isn?t sustainable. And that?s
before any new health care proposals are added to the mix. And yes,
the Republicans are partly to blame for all of this, too.
The Picturette
I don't want to get too involved in this -- but I disagree with those
blog posts on many, many, many levels. And not just because I am not a
libertarian, but because I simply think that some of those statements
are blatantly wrong and misleading. One that particularly stood out is
the idea that "big companies and industrial farming is why poor people
don't starve anymore in this country". Instead they die from various
diseases they get from eating mass-produced unhealthy foods that are
often falsely marketed (but cheap, so poor people can afford them), or
they die because they're workers in these huge food producing
industries that don't follow safety regulations or give proper
benefits to their lowest-paid workers. I know I'm not an expert on
this, but I have read some books, articles, and in particular saw
"Food, Inc.", which is quite informative and I wouldn't say that it's
particularly ideological -- it's a documentary of what is going on in
the food industry in this country.

Anyway, I'm not big on boycotting or protesting, but I actually find
that Whole Foods is usually too expensive for me anyway (nor is there
one close by here), so I don't plan on shopping there a whole lot!
And, I agree with the reason for the boycott.

The Big Picture:
I've already seen the first post. It's not worth getting too upset about, for a couple reasons: most basically, this is really an argument over basic political philosophies, where we have a profound and irreconcilable disagreement on these kinds of issues. This person is anti-government regulation on principle, anti-health care as a basic right, anti-unions, all for ideological reasons that are rooted in religious theology, not facts or what works better, so no logical arguments will change his mind. Now maybe a profound personal experience will reshape his thinking by forcing him to change that religious theology. But you don't challenge religious theology with reason and argument.
But also, what he's saying is that for ideological reasons he's more likely to shop at Whole Foods because its CEO is a libertarian like himself who funds causes that he believes in. That's reasonable. The point of the Boycott Whole Foods movement is that if you don't think people's health care should be left purely to the market, and you think that workers have a right to form unions, and if you believe in public education, public roads and subways, government regulation of the safety of food and drugs, if you think something should be done about inequality - all the things that libertarians oppose and that the Whole Foods CEO uses the money he makes from people buying at his stores to fund efforts to eliminate them - then you should not shop at Whole Foods. If you support the libertarian philosophy, then by all means you should shop there.
Libertarian Guy: Agriculture is less than 2% of GDP. In 1900 it was something like 40%+
of employment and some larger share of GDP. Today, more people are
employed in food processing than agriculture. My (relatively
unevidenced) belief is that local, organic farming does not scale well
and could not support 6.5 billion people. The incredible gains in
agricultural productivity are (at least in significant part) due to
industrial farming involving large capital investments, mechanization,
chemical, and genetic engineering. I am happy to defend
industrial-scale farming of crops against those who think everyone
should grow their own vegetables in their backyard (I am not willing
to defend how we treat animals in factory farms).

I agree that Whole Foods is a bit too expensive. I do think their
local, organic milk tastes better than regular milk. But I can't
afford $6 per box of cereal.

I do not understand the reason for the boycott. Whole Foods does
everything progressives would like -- high-paid workers, socially
conscious products, etc. The objection is that their CEO wants to
offer high-deductible health insurance packages, tax employer-provided
benefits, and allow interstate competition in health insurance
provisions and said so in an op-ed.

Here's the flip-side: Wal-Mart, a company that progressives hate in
terms of workers' treatment and socially unconscious products, has now
endorsed the Obama employer mandate for healthcare. Is that a new
reason to shop at Wal-Mart?

The Big Picture:
I think you are very misinformed about liberals if you think that "Whole Foods does everything progressives would like" - it may do things that YOU like, but I do not particularly like gigantic multinational corporations and the power they accrue and exercise, I don't like elitist stores that make a selling point of being exclusive and that are too expensive to be affordable for average people, including their workers, I don't like a system where only wealthier people can afford to eat healthy and everyone else is consigned to processed food, and most of all, I don't like corporations that deny workers their fundamental right to organize a union, that is using its excess profits to fund efforts to deny ALL workers their right to join a union, to deny Americans affordable and effective health care, to oppose the agenda of President Obama, and to roll back the basic functions of government that I believe are absolutely necessary for a minimally decent society. So no, Whole Foods does not do everything progressives would like. Is it the only company that does things I don't like? Obviously not. But a) they market themselves as being progressive so that liberal elites will shop there, and this hypocrisy needs to be exposed (as opposed to Wal-Mart, people shop there because they have to, and that's the fault of a screwed-up system, not Wal-Mart), and b) their CEO is leading efforts to undermine my most cherished goals and values.

Monday, August 17, 2009

The Daily Strike-8/17/09-Democratic Defeatism

Good evening and welcome to the Daily Strike. There wasn't much news in the political world today. The President made a speech at the Veterans of Foreign Wars conference, and talked about the administration's veterans initiatives (like unprecedented funding in next year's budget) and the war in Afghanistan (which we'll address in an upcoming entry). Today, though, we'll be continuing our August recess musings with an entry about Democratic defeatism.

DEMOCRATIC DEFEATISM: From 2001-2006, all we heard from the Republican party was that Democrats were a bunch of defeatists cowards. I think they might have been on to something. Instead of cowering in the face of global terrorism, (don't worry, I don't believe they ever did) Democrats are now cowering in the face of Republicans, the brain dead mainstream media, angry fringe protesters and opinion polls. It almost seems like the Democratic party doesn't care at this point about delivering health care reform. Where is the fight of Congressional Democrats? When did they stop being team players and become negative Nancies?

I've had a few problems with the way President Obama has conducted this health care debate, but at least he's out there fighting for it. He's willing to go in front of the American people and say "we're gonna get this done because we have to get this done." At least he is showing a sense of urgency. From Congressional Democrats, all I see is weakness. Every day I hear a Democratic Congressman say that they don't know whether they can support the bill. I hear Democrats criticizing the approach of their President or their Congressional leadership. Some Democrats, like Kent Conrad of North Dakota, go on TV every weekend to explicitly announce that we don't have the votes to pass health care reform in the Senate if it includes a public option. The two most overused metaphors in politics are football and war, and rightly so. Can you imagine going to war with soldiers who continuously say, "we can't get this done. We can't defeat the enemy." Can you imagine standing on the battlefield with a guy saying, "I'm not sure whether I'm gonna fight or not. I have to weigh a few things." Imagine being on a football team, the quarterback calls a play, and you say "nah, a bunch of fans have been yelling at me telling me not to do that so I'm just gonna run to the sidelines." It's one thing to bring up some concerns in private or to keep your views on the issue closely held until a bill comes to the floor. But to actively undermine your President as he puts his career on the line is simply unforgivable.

Democrats aren't playing as a team, and it shows. There has not been a sustained pro-reform chorus making the case to the American people. Instead, all we see on TV and in the newspaper are Democrats who are hedging, complaining, or whining about something or another. That sort of behavior not only sows doubt among those who are undecided on the issue, like political independents, but it emboldens the Republican party and those who don't want health reform to see the light of day.

What's worse is that this defeatism isn't any sort of noble reaction by centrists against a proposal that they feel isn't good for their country. Their attitude stem solely from misplaced political concerns. I know this because many of the Democrats who act the most squeamish are the ones who clearly know the least about health reform. Take Blanche Lincoln, Senator from Arkansas, who in the course of a month has gone back and forth on whether she supports the public option. Or Maine Rep. Mike Michaud who signed a letter saying he opposed the public option, AND signed a letter saying he won't support a bill WITHOUT the public option. How about the Blue Dog Democrats, who ostensibly held up the bill because it costs too much, then stripped the portions of the bill that achieved cost savings.

These legislators clearly have no policy principles whatsoever. They just do what they think is the most politically safe course of action. There are a number of reasons why Democrats have been acting so cowardly. Some of them, I think, are actually really affected when they're screamed at over the phone or in person by constituents. I think we can't underestimate how much members of Congress want to be personally liked, no matter what the consequences are to the party and to the country. My other theory is that they have 1994-phobia. In their minds, the last time the Democrats controlled all levers of a power, a Democratic President overreached and the party lost control of the House and the Senate. What actually happened was that a reticent Democratic Congress, full of me-first members with a variety of parochial interests, couldn't deliver on the President's promise to enact sweeping health care legislation. In doing so, the Democrats showed the American people that they were incapable of governing, and the American people kicked them out of office. It wasn't Nancy Pelosi and other liberals who lost in 1994. It was the centrists who came from conservative districts. If the Democratic party fails to deliver, and Obama can't come through on his primary domestic initiative, the party will pay a huge price politically. It will be a much bigger price than they would have paid if they stood tall and delivered a reform package that may cause a few wackos to yell at town hall meetings. In other words, in trying to protect themselves from temporary political harm, they're exposing themselves to massive political consequences.

More importantly, they are hurting Americans who are suffering under our current health care system. Health care reform was never going to be easy. This is a dogfight. I don't expect Republicans to play nice; this plan goes against their rigid ideology. I don't expect the industry to lie down, because this plan will cut into their profits. But there is no excuse for members of the Democratic party to be defeatist and undermine this whole effort.

The Weekly Strike-8/17-8/23

Good morning and welcome to the Weekly Strike, where we preview the week in politics. I think many of my fellow liberals will agree that we're happy to see last week go.

THE WHITE HOUSE: This is a good time for the White House to pick themselves up and dust themselves off. Though The Big Picture and I disagreed on whether yesterday actually spelled the death of the public option, that's how it's being portrayed in the media, and thus, the storyline is that the White House is being forced to compromise on one of the key components of reform. This will only embolden the crazy town hall-goers and the right-wing echo chamber that supports them, and it makes the coming weeks even more challenging to those of us who still believe that health care reform is absolutely essential. At first glance of the President's schedule, it seems like the White House is leaning towards a period of benign neglect. Nobody in the administration likes the trajectory of the debate right now. It seems like everyday we are on the defensive against ludicrous lies, are conceding another key element of reform, or gritting our teeth while Democratic members of Congress delay, waffle and cower.

Speaking of delay, House negotiators now say that they are likely to put off a vote on health care reform until late September. This might not be the worst thing in the world, because members can have a cooling off period after a month of raucous town hall meetings. But as The Big Picture wisely notes, the delay is another sign of the terrible direction of this whole effort. Every time we have delayed, the plan becomes more politically unpopular, and we make another compromise. At least we won't have to hear any more complaints about members not having enough time to read the bill.

The President could always add a town hall or two to the schedule unexpectedly, but so far, his schedule focuses on other issues. Today, he speaks at a VFW national convention in Arizona. No doubt the President will talk to veterans about his support for veterans health care enhancement and the 21st century GI bill, which makes it easier for veterans to go to college. One notable absence, is Arizona's most famous VFW, John McCain, who is apparently out of the country this week.

Tomorrow, the Presidents hosts Egyptian President Mubarak at the White House. Wednesday, it's NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson. Probably not a member of the President's base. Thursday, the President holds more meetings at the White House before he leaves for a two week vacation Friday to Camp David and Martha's Vineyard.

We'll keep you up to date on the President's schedule as it changes. Otherwise, we'll be doing more theme-based entries this week, starting with one tonight on Democratic defeatism. See you tonight!

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Big Picture: Why I'm still VERY concerned

The Strike makes good points on the substantive merits, but it is the political implications and symbolic meaning of the White House giveaway today that trouble me so deeply. The White House didn't give in on the public option in exchange for something else like a strong exchange, or even a promise of votes from centrist Democrats. As far as I can tell, it was just a straight unilateral surrender, and whatever the intentions, it basically demonstrates that the White House will cower and shrivel when the pressure gets tough. And why did they have to do it now, when votes won't be taken for weeks, and just when it seemed that Obama had started gaining some traction in pushing back with his town halls? The consequences will be a a sense of triumph for the Right-Wing Forces of Evil that will spur them to attack harder and more passionately, that will rally them to go for the kill. Giving this away now just handed the Evil Forces a ton of momentum. For those of us on the left, who the White House desperately needs to be far far more involved, this is a slap in the face. I feel so deflated, not just by WHAT we gave away, but even more by WHEN we did it. There was an article on the front page of the Times yesterday about how the Obama grassroots army has not been nearly as involved as was hoped. And after this? This signal that even though the President spent months and years saying the public option was critical for health care reform, he'll just surrender on it?

And most devastating will be the consequences for the center. If you were a centrist Democrat trying to read which way the wind is blowing, should I stick with Obama because he'll bounce back, or should I jump ship - after this I would realize two things: this is clear confirmation that the Right has seized the upper hand, and that I better not stick my neck out for Obama and support anything because he'll just abandon and let me twist in the wind forced to defend a vote for something even the liberal President is implying is too liberal. To sum it up, do you think today's move makes it more likely that the critical centrist Democrats are going to sense that it's in their best interest to ignore the town hall cacophony and vote for reform? NO WAY.

Finally, think about what this says about the current political situation: if the Right makes up enough insane lies and yells loud enough, they can force the President to abandon what he defined as a central element of the most important item of agenda, an element that polls show was supported by 75% of the country. What happens with Obama's less sweepingly popular proposals? How will they survive the "socialist" chants and the vicious lies? I just don't see where Obama goes from here. I don't like the trajectory of health care reform or indeed his entire agenda.

Hopefully the Strike can cheer me up.

Counter-Strike: Hold Your Fire

I was trying to continue to keep my weekend peace, but The Big Picture wrote an apocalyptic entry that I think merits a response.

I don't think it's worth getting devastated based on what we saw in the news today. Yes, the Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius said that the public option was "not an essential part of reform." I think she's dead wrong. But she did NOT say that the White House is willing to give in on the public option. The point that she's trying to make is one that Ezra Klein has made several times. The Public Option is neither as good as its proponents say it is, nor as bad as its detractors say it is. What Sebelius was getting at, I think, was that the public option should not be the focal point of the debate on health reform. It is one of several options that would be available to about 20% of the population that doesn't get insurance from their employers. I think it's important, but I don't think it should define what this bill is about. There are several provisions that are arguably more important than the public option. For example, the size and scope of the national health insurance exchange, whether it includes a public option or not, is critically important. The size of subsidies to individuals so that they can afford insurance under an individual mandate is crucial.

The White House is clear that they want a plan that will increase competition with private insurers. I think the co-op will not do that effectively, and I think the public option will. But there is a long way to go in the legislative process, and the White House insisted later today that nothing in their view has changed. They still strongly support the public option.

What I'm more worried about, and I'll write about this more in the coming days, is the Democratic defeatism on this issue. I was more concerned to see Senator Conrad (D-ND) say that the public option doesn't have the votes to pass the Senate. He has repeated this mantra repeatedly over the past few months, and it seems to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. It would have enough votes if you went out and GOT the votes, not if you whined about it on Fox News. Meanwhile, centrist House Democrats, the ones I've seen interviewed on TV, seem intimidated by the outbursts at town hall meetings, and are backing off their previous support of health reform bills. Mike Ross of Arkansas, a Blue Dog Democrat who won a ton of concessions from leadership to make the bill more "moderate" won't even say if he'll support final passage of the House bill. I've heard this from several House Democrats, who seem to be forgetting that they don't represent the crazy old people who show up at their town meetings, they represent the best interests of their constituents. There just doesn't seem to be a desire by anyone in the Democratic party to fight for this.

Meanwhile, the Republican party is dancing in the streets celebrating the Democrats' failure to act. They're thrilled at the enthusiasm of the grassroots and the timidity of Democrats in Congress. I heard an interview with conservative blogger Erick Erickson today, who was talking as if it was obvious that the Republicans would take back the House next year. We simply can't let this happen. We have large majorities in both Houses of Congress, our President is still pretty popular, and the American people support the major tenets of the health care proposal. We haven't lost anything yet. We lose only by shooting ourselves in the foot and cowering in the face of a vocal, but small portion of the electorate.

The public option isn't dead. The White House hasn't conceded anything. They're just preparing themselves to accept a watered down version of the bill if the political will isn't there to pass something really ambitious. It's our job to make sure that will is there.

The Big Picture: DISASTER

This emergency post will be brief, I assume the Strike will write something and I'll probably be back with more, but I had to give my shocked and appalled reaction to the news that the White House will give in on the public option. This is horrendous news, substantively and politically.

1. Substantively, the public option was the vehicle to keep insurance companies honest, but more than that, for liberals it was the whole point of health care reform: we were willing to compromise on Medicare for All by having a Medicare option that people could choose - the public option - and then people would voluntarily choose this public option because it had lower premiums and much better coverage, due to better regulation, no profit margins, and mass bargaining power. By giving in on this, without extracting any concessions, we have compromised away the central point of health care reform. Here was Robert Reich arguing for the absolute necessity of the public option:

Without a public option, the other parties that comprise America's non-system of health care -- private insurers, doctors, hospitals, drug companies, and medical suppliers -- have little or no incentive to supply high-quality care at a lower cost than they do now.

Which is precisely why the public option has become such a lightening rod. The American Medical Association is dead-set against it, Big Pharma rejects it out of hand, and the biggest insurance companies won't consider it. No other issue in the current health-care debate is as fiercely opposed by the medical establishment and their lobbies now swarming over Capitol Hill. Of course, they don't want it. A public option would squeeze their profits and force them to undertake major reforms. That's the whole point...

Reich says that any alternatives are simply unacceptable, and will not produce the drastically needed change.

One would substitute nonprofit health insurance cooperatives for a public plan. But such cooperatives would lack the scale and authority to negotiate lower rates with drug companies and other providers, collect wide data on outcomes, or effect major change in the system.

Another emerging compromise is to hold off on a public option altogether unless or until private insurers fail to meet some targets for expanding coverage and lowering health-care costs years from now. But without a public option from the start, private insurers won't have the incentives or system-wide model they need to reach these targets. And in politics, years from now usually means never.

To get health care moving again in Congress, the president will have to be clear about how to deal with its costs and whether and how a public plan is to be included as an option. The two are intimately related. Enough talk. He should come out swinging for the public option.

The public option was to be the vehicle for Obama's three goals : to cover the uninsured, improve the coverage of the already-insured, and move toward a quality-based incentive structure. And it was the vehicle to eventually achieve the liberal dream of Medicare For All, of health care as a human right provided by a democratic government. That dream died today.

We'll be back later with the political implications.

Friday, August 14, 2009

The Daily Strike-8/14/09-Anger and Hope (With Some Radical Ideas from The Big Picture)

Good evening and welcome to the Daily Strike. Enjoy one of the most bipolar entries we'll ever write.

HEALTH CARE: I went back and forth today from being very angry, to more hopeful about the prospect of health reform. I wake up this morning to see that Americans will not get compensated for end-of-life counseling because of what Sarah Palin wrote on her Facebook profile. Because she pedaled a lie about death panels, millions of Americans will now be forced to pay out of pocket to talk to their doctor about the painful decisions we all have to face when we are at the twilight years of our life. The official word came from Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA), who is an intellectually dishonest jerk. Despite the fact that Grassley previously supported end-of-life counseling, he exploited the issue the other day by suggesting that seniors should be scared that the government will "pull the plug on grandma." The Big Picture commented on both the absurdity of Grassley's statement, and how insane it is that we're making public policy worse because of what a pea-brained Sarah Palin wrote on Facebook:

I despise Grassley so much. At this point he more than any other single person is responsible for problems with health care reform

The end-of-life stuff, God it makes me so angry and depressed and just generally disillusioned. Read the New York Times article on it. It's so distressing. How will anything EVER get done if these big lies just dominate the debate. It is so insane to me that that DISGUSTING Sarah Palin Facebook post will now lead to there not being coverage of end-of-life counseling. Think about that. Think about what that means for getting anything done, ever. As despicable a figure as Sarah Palin, as big an idiot as Sarah Palin, who is regarded by the majority of Americans as an idiot, she makes a charge so outlandish that just repeating it is like comedy... and then she wins!

The loss of that provision gave us the sinking feeling that Democrats were just not playing tough enough. We're fighting against so much power: the industry that wants to protect the status quo, a nihilistic Republican Party, and a lot of people who are angry and disillusioned with government to the point that they might do something violent. The Big Picture had some, umm, interesting ideas on how to confront these people in a series of questionable emails this morning:

The thing is, though, that this is politics. It's blood-sport. It's to-the-death. Krugman with a great column on it, concluding by saying, "How will Obama respond?" You can't lose your cool, and yet you've got to play HARDBALL, play to WIN. One thing that makes me confident is Obama's tremendous persistence and perseverance. He's not going to give in. He's going to keep pushing and pushing and pushing and hopefully they'll crack. But you've got to play HARDBALL...

...If they're really SERIOUS about winning, you need to start - and not Obama but others - to viciously undermine the other side, as we did with Clinton, with McCain, with Palin, even with Bush. A fair amount of the attacks on them were unfair and below-the-belt and exaggerated. I mean, was it entirely fair to pound home McCain's "fundamentals of the economy are strong" statement, and to implicitly blame McCain for the economic crisis? Was it fair to cast all that blame on Bush for Katrina? Probably not. But we did it, and that's how we won. Time to really GO AFTER them, drum up wild charges, blackmail them, rough 'em up. The White House is a pretty powerful office. The U.S. Congress is pretty powerful. There's a lot of things we could do ... start some FBI a little IRS auditing...haul people before congressional committees...use the FCC to do some things...plant some evidence on these right-wing leaders, some sting operations, arrest them for drugs and prostitution...PLAY TO WIN!...

...The key is to mix this low-road politics with an uplifting Obama message packed with emotional appeal, how this is going to improve people's lives, restore hope, deliver change, how this time it's different, America a nation of Yes We Can...
...Right now he's caught in this middle road where there's neither the stirring emotional appeal to rally the base and sway the impressionable middle, nor is there the low-road, pure power approach to truly undercut the opposition...

...And the guys behind the low road effort should be Rahm Emanuel, James Carville, and Paul Begala. Carville and Begala did a very effective job mixing Bill Clinton's "Man from Hope" uplifting message with some frankly unfair and vicious attacks on George H.W. Bush, a lot of turning meaningless things into huge issues, a lot of ad hominem attacks on Bush's background and personality. Meanwhile Rahm should be masterminding an effort, probably in concert with Pelosi, Waxman, Leahy, as well as Eric Holder from Justice and Janet Napolitano from Homeland Security, to really kick some ass, make people PAY for their opposition. As in, loss of livelihood, loss of reputation, loss of freedom, for starters...

...I'm concerned that we aren't actually playing to win, that they don't know what it really takes to get this kind of thing done, that they're too bound up in protocol and too worried about being criticized for their tactics. The only person in this whole thing who would suffer from a criticism of tactics is Obama. So as long as he's not the one doing the vicious attacks, calling people before committees, investigating them - then it doesn't matter if Waxman or Holder get some blowback. But I wonder if these people are ready to risk their reputations, risk their cozy positions and nice relationships, to really tear down the media and the opposition, which is what has to happen. I'll be disappointed if we haven't imprisoned and blacklisted the conservative movement during this fall...

...Let's make it as simple as possible - just tie them up by hauling them before Congress, subpoenaing them, throwing them in prison. You start investigating taxes, throwing them in prison for tax evasion. You plant some drugs. You plant them with prostitutes - I think some nefarious gay sex scandals against Limbaugh and Beck and Charles Grassley and Mitch McConnell could really work some wonders. Start peddling some nasty rumors about Betsy McCaughey. There's also a lot of threats you can start to make to people, to their families...I mean, Obama is the commander in chief, he's in charge of the army, the FBI, the IRS, the CIA. This isn't only to win the health care debate, it's also to dissuade these dark forces from opposing him on the next series of issues. Because otherwise they are clearly going to derail his entire agenda and drive this country into the ditch...

Perhaps The Big Picture might be facing Secretary Napolitano or a Congressional subpoena himself after this entry. The Strike does not endorse these Machiavellian and Nixonian views, but he does share the frustration.

But anger gave way to some hope in the afternoon. President Obama gave a very strong town hall meeting performance in Bozeman, Montana. There were no crowd outbursts (like we've seen at town hall meetings across the country), and the President was in full command, making convincing cases for the public option, delivery system reform and insurance market reforms. He faced some tough questions from an NRA member who asked about tax increases (a reasonable question) and someone who works in the insurance industry, but for the most part, the crowd was friendly, supportive and well-informed. The President's new found focus on changing the evil practices of the insurance industry is a lot better than his previous focus on "bending the cost curve." People see the insurance industry abuses all the time in their everyday lives, and it is a solution that taps into the populist anger we're seeing across the country. He complimented his commanding performance by giving constant shout outs to Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT), saying that he is "committed to getting this bill done." It is a two pronged strategy to regain control of the debate on health care and keep pressure on key lawmakers. Not exactly The Big Picture's Play to Win strategy, but I think it can help turn the tide in the fight to enact health reform.

I was even more inspired this afternoon when I was watching a clip from a town hall meeting with Arkansas Rep. Mike Ross, a key centrist Democrat and member of the Blue Dog Coalition. Ross was mostly getting questions from angry, impassioned right-wingers about government takeovers and this and that. Then a tall, lanky man with a deep Southern accent came to the microphone. He noted that while Ross' district has high unemployment, a high rate of people who are uninsured, and massive poverty, the Congressman bragged about holding the health care reform bill hostage. At the same time, he said, Ross took millions of dollars in contributions from the health care industry. The man quoted Martin Luther King Jr., who said that "justice deferred is justice denied" and that Ross shouldn't sell out the needs of his constituents. It was incredibly uplifting to see someone in such a conservative district standing up for our side. It gives me hope that there are enough people out there who understand how important it is to get this done. I'll try to post the video if it shows up on YouTube.

Ugh. As I was about to post this entry, I read that Senator Kent Conrad (D-ND) won't support the public option, and he gave no good reason for it. Yes, it was a day of anger and hope.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Daily Strike-8/13/09-Read The Bill!!

Good evening and welcome to the Daily Strike. Tonight, we continue our series of recess musings. This one is on the irritating charge that important bills (such as health care rerform) are too long, and that members of Congress haven't read the bill.

1,000 PAGE BILL: You will hear a lot of crazy things at these town hall meetings, as we talked about yesterday. But one of the most curious to me is how often people mention that the bill is "1,000 pages long" and that their Congressman "needs to read the bill!" "Give US time to read the bill," theses protesters shout! Bill O'Reilly chastised Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) about the length of the bill and said that Congress should pass 5 page summaries (they already do). I don't take too much stock in what these people say, but it's not just them who have lobbed the "read the bill" complaints. Jon Stewart, someone I respect greatly for holding politicians accountable for saying and doing ridiculous things, almost always brings this up when speaking with public officials. He always gets huge applause lines from his audience, and the politician is always sitting there smiling, tacitly endorsing Stewart's contention that bills should be 5 pages and simple! There are a lot of reasons why bills are long. Some of them are problematic, oftentimes lawmakers stick in special projects to win a few votes, and sometimes there are provisions that are intentionally buried. But the main reason, is that issues are complicated, and every potential loophole needs to be covered. For example, in the health care bill there is a long section on public measurement and reporting. It wouldn't surprise most of you that I think this is important. No doubt it would be excluded if we made bills short just for the sake of making them short. As for the whole thing about reading the bill (there is actually an organized movement to get members of Congress to read the bill), it's a good applause line. I admit it. I even support it in principle. But some of the griping is pretty disingenuous. It's not like bills are airdropped from outer space. SOMEONE writes them, usually legislative counsel, with detailed instructions from members. The people who sponsor bills have read them, and give them to others months and months in advance. The Congressional Research Service prints out a summary cheat sheet of the bill's major provisions. It is then considered in committee, and then on the floor of both the House and the Senate, sometimes twice. So there are a lot of opportunities for members to voice their objections. On some bills, like the climate change bill, amendments are airdropped in at the last minute. But even these amendments are available several hours in advance, and are almost always proposals that have been previously considered. What's more disingenuous is that the people complaining about whether the bill has been read or not don't support the bill, and wouldn't no matter what was in it. Just admit that you don't like the policy, and don't go on a moral crusade about how you haven't had time to read the bill. Every single member of Congress, bar none, has voted for a bill that they haven't read. Both parties do it, and they do it all the time. And I'm not sure it really is that bad of a thing. There are a lot of people in Congress who aren't the sharpest knives in the drawer, and wouldn't know what half the stuff in each bill actually meant. Everyone votes based on pre-conceived ideology or political considerations. There is not one member of Congress who picks up every bill that's considered with an open mind, and reads the whole thing. If they're undecided, they're almost always deciding which vote would be more politically punishing.

The question is, why is this an important issue and what makes it so salient in the current debate about health care. I was reading a piece by a psychologist recently (unfortunately I forgot where I read it, so I can't cite it) who was talking about why people cling to conspiracy theories. He said that it gives people comfort when they think they, and they alone know a truth that is not apparent to anyone else. It helps them rationalize things in their minds that are difficult to understand. It's a lot easier for people to be prone to believe conspiracies when they see that a bill is so many pages. It makes it seem, to them, like members of Congress are trying to hide something from them.

The minority party in Congress will then play on these conspiratorial fears to their own advantage. (I don't see them complaining about reading the 1000 page substitute amendments they submit at the last minute). On almost every major bill that comes up in Congress, no matter who is in the majority, there will be some complaint that the bill is too long, that members didn't have enough time to read it before it was introduced etc. It is a way to sow doubt with the public about the bill, if opposing outright isn't enough. The cycle then continues. People watching CSPAN see half of the speakers basically suggesting that there could be something scary hidden in a piece of legislation.

The wackos at the Town Hall may be a lost cause, but for sensible people like Jon Stewart, stop being witty and clever by acting outraged at how long bills are. Issues are complicated, and sometimes need to be fleshed out. And members of Congress just don't read every piece of legislation that they vote on. Ideally they would, but that's just not the way things work, and there are much worse things to get outraged about. Like 46 million people without health insurance.