Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Crack-Up
I always thought that we wouldn't see the true extent of right-wing craziness until the Democrats were back in power. To some extent, I've been surprised that there hadn't been more seething vitriol from the farther reaches of the right through the first fourteen months of the Obama presidency; in fact, I was thinking about this recently and concluded that this president likely inspired less visceral loathing than Bill Clinton had--perhaps because Clinton, as a white southerner, was perceived as somehow treacherous, or perhaps because his personal flaws seemed, from a certain perspective, to embody hippie self-indulgence and Baby Boomer excess.

But those conclusions were obviously premature. In the three days since the House of Representatives passed health care reform, the full dimension of the rage on the right has revealed itself. Democratic members of Congress have seen their offices vandalized and received death threats, this days after the civil rights hero and Georgia congressman John Lewis was called the n-word and Massachusetts congressman Barney Frank endured anti-gay slurs.

Hopefully this is a short-term reaction, fueled by the recency of the outcome and perhaps the surprise that a measure which many in the press had left for dead in fact became the law of the land. But I'm not sure about that--any more that I'm now sure the opposition to Obama is more restrained and substantive than it was to Clinton:

A new Harris poll that reveals some shocking things about how Republican voters view President Obama.

Key findings:

67% believe Obama is a socialist.
57% believe Obama is a Muslim.
38% believe Obama is "doing many of the things that Hitler did."
24% believe Obama "may be the Antichrist."

Probably anyone with strong partisan feelings is at least occasionally prone to excessively demonizing public figures of divergent views. But I'm honestly trying to think what the parallels would be for someone of my views considering the right-wing figures I most deplore: Tom DeLay, Dick Cheney, Sarah Palin. I can't. I think they're all deeply wrong on just about everything, I find them vicious and hypocritical, and at least in the cases of DeLay and Palin I can see how their basic views of Christianist identity politics, the unlimited national security/militaristic state, and the effective fusion of big business with government-- taken (I'm glad to say) to far more of an extreme than anything they've directly expressed--could inform a fascist structure. But I wouldn't call them overt fascists, much less someone like George W. Bush who seemed less personally driven by pure hate for his opponents. (Disdain? Certainly. But not hate. Maybe it's a class thing; I think it's more of a stretch for anyone born wealthy to hate in the manner that a Palin does or a Nixon did.)

I don't know how we de-hyperbolize our politics, especially given that the most active partisans are also now the ones least likely to leave the echo chambers--and I doubt Fox News, or other outposts on the right are going to send the message to cool it down and act like grownups. Sadly, the Republican leadership probably won't either, in the belief that the Tea Party folks who feed on raw rage might write them off altogether. But it's absolutely a necessity if we're ever going to move on the big items left on the national agenda in this period: tax and entitlement reform, getting a handle on our finances, mitigating the effects of climate change. We need to get back to what I remember American Conservative Union leader David Keane said a few years when interviewed by Bill Moyers and asked if he agreed that liberals were traitors: "Bill, you're not a traitor. You're just wrong." It has to be possible to regard opponents as "just wrong," rather than irreconcilable enemies who pose an existential threat to America, freedom, puppies and life itself.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Unmade Closing Argument
It sounds like one way or another, we'll know the fate of health care within the next week or so. The Democrats certainly seem to be confident, a welcome change from their usual embrace of fecklessness and despair. But enough possible mines still lay in the road--the Congressional Budget Office score, a new round of polling or two--that I'm far from certain the legislation will pass.

I've written a great deal about what I think is riding on the outcome here: not just a long forward step toward universal coverage and getting costs under control, but a signal that our fractured and fractious political system can address and make progress on big challenges. It's deeply unfortunate, and I think entirely unprecedented, that this measure will pass (if it passes) on a partisan basis... but less unfortunate, and no more unprecedented, than the Republicans' total subordination of policy outcomes to political considerations.

As it happens, the Republicans do have a vision for changes in health care policy. It's just that, as Jonathan Chait describes, their core objective for reform sharply diverges from what the Democrats want to accomplish:

What separates the two parties is not how far to go, but in which direction to go. The divide is simple. Democrats propose to shift resources from the rich and the healthy to the poor and the sick. Republicans want to do just the opposite. Republican health care plans reflect the party’s increasingly widespread belief that good health, like other forms of prosperity, is a matter of personal responsibility. Democratic plans to help the sick at the expense of the healthy therefore amount to socialism.
The Democrats’ health care plan aims to create pools for people outside of the employer market, joining healthier individuals together with the sick, so that the former effectively subsidize the latter. The common element of all the Republican plans is to do the opposite-to separate the healthy from the sick.

Republicans have long championed Health Savings Accounts, which give individuals who buy insurance a tax deduction for money they set aside for a high-deductible plan. Since tax deductions are worth more to people in higher tax brackets, and since high-deductible plans appeal more to those with lower medical expenses, the plans attract the rich and healthy, leaving the poor and sick behind.

The thrust of the GOP ideas currently on offer is to reduce health insurance regulation. Republicans would create financial incentives that, according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), would encourage states to cut regulation; they would also let businesses and individuals buy insurance from other states. (Health insurance is regulated by state governments.) As a result, health insurance regulation would sink to the level of whichever state offered the laxest regulations. If it worked like the credit card industry, governors would be competing to undercut each other’s regulations in order to lure insurers to their states.
Republicans boast that the CBO says their plan would reduce insurance premiums. This is true. The CBO predicted this would happen because the GOP plan would reduce premiums for healthy people, bringing more of them into the insurance pool, and raise premiums for sicker people, driving more of them out.

Why would Republicans favor a result like this? The better question might be, why wouldn’t they? The modern Republican domestic agenda is, above all, an attack on redistribution, a crusade to free society’s winners from shouldering the burdens of its losers.

This short but devastating article took me back about twenty-five years, to when I first started thinking about political issues in a systemic way. Simply put, when I was 12 or 13 I realized that the conservative movement in the age of Reagan seemed to embrace concentration of wealth and protection of privilege as their desired end, with the means of twisting "values" principles to support those goals. The liberals--muddled, ineffectual and contradictory as they were and are--at least occasionally seemed to embrace the notion that society is best advanced by actions to equalize opportunity. The formulation of WITT ("We're in this together") vs. YOYO ("You're on your own") is a bit flip but nonetheless apt. (For an even more breathtaking example of Republican devotion to comforting the comfortable, check out this Center on Budget and Policy Priorities assessment of Rep. Paul Ryan's budget roadmap. Long story short, it creates the greatest upward redistribution of wealth in history--million-dollar tax cuts for the very richest with higher taxes for just about everyone else--while wrecking Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid... and failing to eliminate the debt, despite Ryan's statements to the contrary. )

I've always thought that this was the story Obama was meant to tell: that as a nation we can come closer together, to our broadly shared benefit, or drift farther apart, to the great advantage of a few but the collective detriment of all. Indeed, he's told it better than anybody, at the 2004 Democratic convention and again in his 2005 commencement address at Knox College. The president's political team is obviously skilled; perhaps they tested this message in the context of health care, found that it didn't play, and bent their efforts toward trying to make this a case for self-interest ("without this reform, you're at the mercy of the insurance companies"). But this has to be in there somewhere, not least because the rest of Obama's agenda, from education to immigration to taxes to entitlements, will rise or fall on the same lines. Only the identities of the privileged/protected few--including some pretty powerful Democratic constituencies--will change. It might not be too much to assert that his presidency will succeed or fail on how effectively he can make this case. And if his presidency itself is as consequential as I believe it to be, we all have a great deal at stake.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Koch Against the Machine
I’ve never been an Ed Koch fan. His personality combo of bully and nebbish rubs me the wrong way; much more to the point, he’s been a huge asshole in his politics pretty much ever since leaving the New York City mayoralty, famously supporting George W. Bush against John Kerry in 2004 among a slew of lesser offenses. He also sucks as a film critic.

But I have to tip my cap to the guy for what he must be thinking of as his last major political act at 85 years old (and coming off the same major heart surgery I had last year plus a quadruple bypass): a campaign to clean up the sinkhole that Albany.

Given that Koch initially came to prominence way, way back in the day as a reform champion, then saw his mayoralty undermined and his reputation wiped out from all the corruption on his watch (even as nobody suggested Ed himself was a crook), this has the potential to become a nice redemption story. Nobody doubts Koch's love for the city where he made his name--or, perhaps, his enduring enmity for a state capital he never quite was able to conquer; his 1982 gubernatorial bid ended in defeat as Mario Cuomo, whom Koch had bested in the 1977 mayoral race, won the Democratic nomination and went on to serve three terms as the state's chief executive.

That said, I doubt it works. The criteria for identifying "the worst ones" in Albany--whom he describes as "evil"--almost certainly will prove too nebulous, for one thing. For another, it will be very, very easy for many of the targeted incumbents on the Democratic side at least to pull a Clay Davis and ascribe the goo-goo opposition to racism, rather than than their spectacular track records of corruption. If Koch and his allies were smart, they'd seek backing from African-American and Latino political organizations.

Perhaps a better approach would be to present a "reform pledge" to all candidates, incumbents and challengers alike, calling for sweeping changes to how business is done in Albany: this list might be a good start. Of course, this strategy only works if there's enough money behind the implied threat: if you don't live up to your promises, we're going to drive you out of office and wreck your career. Absent a durable marriage of high-minded principle and brass-knuckle politicking, any new stab at state government reform is as surely doomed as the last try--in 2006, when a crusading state attorney general named Eliot Spitzer promised us all that "On Day One, Everything Changes." Needless to say, nothing did.
“An Enormously Profound Test of Our Democracy”
I would guess that everybody overstates the importance of the times in which they live; why else would religious types always proclaim that the end of the world is coming imminently? So it's certainly possible that I’m making the same error with the current political moment, and that the country is no more at risk than in the 1790s, 1830s, 1880s, 1970s or any other time in which prognosticators warned of imminent and irreversible decline.

But whatever the true stakes, I think it's inarguable that we have some problems. This interview Ezra Klein conducted with Colorado Senator Michael Bennet really does capture what we're up against, with long-gestating problems about to burst into the forefront just as our system seems unprecedentedly stymied and almost willfully counterproductive:

I believe we are right now going through an enormously profound test of our democracy and our democratic institutions. We do, as a country, face some enormous challenges. Even before we were driven into this recession, the last period of economic growth is the first time our economy grew and median family income declined. We've created no net new jobs since 1998. And we’ve done nothing to change educational outcomes for kids going to school in our country. We’ve managed to burden our children with $12 trillion in debt. Think about the policy decisions that have to be made amid these political incentives. We have to figure out how to change the political culture so that people’s incentives in this job point in the right direction.

While Bennet's main point is the dysfunction of the Senate and how the political benefits of reflexive oppositional positioning extract a staggering institutional cost, what I've bolded here is the context and background, far too rarely stated in these direct terms, for the budgetary hand-wringing over entitlement costs and foreign adventures. These problems, combined with the widespread sense that those in power have enriched themselves at our collective expense and might not even be interested in finding solutions, are what could destroy us as a society even if we do find ways to reform the filibuster, eliminate holds and take other steps to streamline governance processes.

In this light, the coming final showdown over health care really does take on a significance even beyond whether we'll extend insurance to more than 30 million Americans currently without it, and perhaps begin to get costs under control. It now sounds like the Senate has the votes; the House is less certain. Once again, it’s a fairly small issue—abortion—that threatens to scotch the whole deal. I’m not saying that abortion is insignificant or unimportant; obviously it’s a question that gets to individuals’ deepest values. But given the uncertainty over what the language in the Senate bill even means—whether or not it supercedes the Hyde Amendment—it seems madness to me to hold a major piece of legislation that the protesters (supposedly) otherwise support hostage to the question. If the bill founders on that issue, that outcome will reinforce the deepening skepticism over government’s ability or appetite to take on even the relatively solvable problem of health care, much less the bigger icebergs not yet in view.

To be honest, I haven’t yet read Bennet’s proposals for Senate reform—but I find the manner in which he frames the problems here enormously compelling. Sadly, he’s one of the many appointed Senators who replaced departing Democrats after the 2008 elections—a group that also included placeholder Ted Kaufman for Vice-President Joe Biden, the stunningly lame Kirsten Gillibrand for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and of course the deeply compromised Roland Burris for President Obama himself. Bennet replaced Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, meaning that almost certainly the best and most thoughtful term-completer stepped in for the least consequential departing Senator. But he’s in perhaps worse political shape than even Gillibrand, who’s protected by our state’s deep blue hue and the deep pockets and long reach of Chuck Schumer; Bennet trails Colorado Republicans in early polling. Let's hope he hangs in.