Friday, May 30, 2008

No Sift This Week

The Weekly Sift will return on June 9.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Political Soap Opera

Whoever is winning at the moment will always seem to be invincible. -- George Orwell

In This Week's Sift:

The Clintons, Season 17. Why is so much political coverage focused on a candidate who no longer has a chance to win?

The Scariest Thing I Read This Week. Radar's article about a program called Main Core is all based on anonymous sources. But it's a pretty frightening story all the same.

McCain Watch. Nobody is paying attention, but the media actually is starting to scrutinize John McCain.

Short Notes.
Playing fetch in Iraq, Joe vs. Joe, Sistani's new fatwa, and a bold way to handle the border patrol.

The Clintons, Season 17
Politics and government are actually not very popular in America, so it's not unusual for our political coverage to be taken over by some other art form. That happened this week, as the media focused its attention not on the future governance of the United States, but on the ongoing soap opera of The Clintons. Will the sexist media force Hillary out of the race? Will she destroy the Democratic Party? Will we finally discover that Barack is the secret love child of Bill Clinton and Tina Turner? Stay tuned.

Let's get political reality out of the way as fast as possible: Obama now has the majority of the elected delegates. The superdelegates continue to trend towards him. In spite of the claims of the Clinton campaign, the polls show no statistically significant difference between how Obama and Clinton compete against McCain. There is no credible scenario where Clinton gets the nomination, or credible argument that she should get it, and even the incredible scenarios leave the Democratic Party so shattered that McCain wins.

Enough of that. It's boring. On to the juicy stuff.

Did She Really Say That? No, not really. She did bring up Bobby Kennedy's assassination while answering a question about why she was staying in the race, but the people who think she was hinting that someone might shoot Obama are being unfair. (Keith Olbermann, who I ordinarily admire a lot, kind of wigged out on this one.) The first time I saw the video, I interpreted it the same way she eventually explained it: the RFK assassination is something lots of people remember from a primary campaign that stretched into June. Bringing it up was misguided for a bunch of other reasons -- 1968 is not a campaign today's Democrats should be imitating -- but I didn't hear any invitation to violence. (An invitation to violence looks like this.) The most complete telling of the story is here.

As past readers of this blog should know, I'm down on this whole somebody-said-a-bad-thing style of politics. I didn't like it when the media was going crazy about Obama's "bitter" comment, and I don't like it now. Obama is being gracious and writing the whole thing off to the stress of a long campaign causing words to come out wrong. Let's leave it at that.

What's She Doing? I wish I could figure it out. There's nothing inherently wrong with a candidate continuing to run long after any real chance at the nomination is gone. Mike Huckabee did it, and nobody holds it against him.

But Clinton is doing something Huckabee didn't: working hard to raise resentment against her party's near-certain nominee. Her Florida-and-Michigan rhetoric tries to make Obama's victory seem illegitimate. The why-are-they-trying-to-force-me-out stuff is salting the wounds of her supporters. Just before making the RFK comparison she complained "People have been trying to push me out of this ever since Iowa." Why? "I don't know. I don't know. I find it curious. Because it's unprecedented in history." In reality, Obama's been handling her with kid gloves, but she's doing her best to sound like a victim.

Hillary Clinton is on a very destructive path. I can't figure out where it's going or what she hopes to gain from it.

Mulitiple frames. From the beginning of Hillary's campaign, many older women -- who experienced overt discrimination that younger women have trouble imagining -- have framed this campaign as The Only Chance In Our Lifetime To Elect a Woman President. Some of them seem to have a hard time imagining that other people frame the campaign differently, so they can only attribute Clinton's loss to sexism. Any other explanation is just an excuse.

By contrast, thirty-somethings, male and female alike, find the Clinton-is-all-women notion puzzling. To them, Clinton's gender is an important part of her biography, but not the all-encompassing theme of 2008.

A lot of Democrats of all ages have framed this campaign around the war: Clinton voted to authorize it and has never really admitted that vote was a mistake, or explained how she will avoid similar mistakes in the future. When the war was popular, she positioned herself so that its possible success wouldn't ruin her candidacy. Now that it's unpopular, she talks forcefully about ending it. In 2006 the late Molly Ivins wrote: "Sen. Clinton is apparently incapable of taking a clear stand on the war in Iraq, and that alone is enough to disqualify her." Is that an excuse for sexism?

For liberal activists, 2008 is the culmination of the Dean revolution of 2004. The Clinton-era move-to-the-right tactics that killed us in 2002 and 2004 are finally being rejected. Hillary made the mistake of picking the wrong side: She's the establishment candidate in a revolutionary year. Should we ignore that because she's a woman?

Is She the Last Hope? Marie Cocco writes: "The record suggests that if Clinton is not the nominee, no woman will seriously contend for the White House for another generation." Of course, after Colin Powell ruined his future by being the mouthpiece for the Bush administration's lies to the UN, the prospects for a black president looked pretty dim too. Who saw Obama coming in 2003?

Let's back up and take a wider view of how sexism works at this level. Lots of people, male and female, are talented enough to make a serious run for president. What most of them lack are a jumping-off point and a story. Sexism has made it harder for women to get either one.

Credible presidential candidates are almost always either governors or senators or vice presidents. You need that jumping-off point. (Congressmen like Dennis Kucinich or Tom Tancredo just prove the rule. How far did they get?) So as long as there weren't many female governors or senators, the chances for a female president were slim. But that's changing. The Center for American Women and Politics lists eight current female governors, including two -- Janet Napolitano of Arizona and Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas -- who are widely mentioned as Obama VP possibilities. There are 16 female senators. Not half, but not zero either. Then there's Nancy Pelosi. The more women who stand at jumping-off points, the more likely that one will be in the right place when opportunity beckons.

But that's not the complete accounting of sexism in presidential politics. A candidate also needs to be the protagonist of a story of leadership, and men have a bunch of such stories to choose from. John McCain can run as a war hero, because war-hero-becomes-political-leader is a story as old as Caesar. When Obama runs as a charismatic young Turk, people say, "Oh, yeah -- JFK. I know this story."

Right now neither of those stories works for women. (I think that's a big piece of the feminist resentment of Obama.) Only two leadership stories do: The Deserving Ladder-Climber, who pays all her dues, fulfills all the prerequisites, does all the homework, and is ready. And the Heir, who carries on the political legacy of her father or husband. (Think Indira Gandhi, Benazir Bhutto, Evita Peron.) Hillary Clinton's story is a combination of the two: She paid her dues in her husband's administration.

Both stories have disadvantages. By the time a Deserving Ladder-Climber makes it to a jumping-off point, she might be too old to go further, like Diane Feinstein (but not Sebelius or Napolitano) today. And since legacy-producing leaders are rare, plausible Heirs are always going to be rare too.

The main reason I think we'll see a female president much sooner than a generation is because more leadership stories are going to open up for women. The manufactured Jessica Lynch story took off because the country is ready to see a woman as a war hero. A genuine female war hero may yet come out of Iraq or Afghanistan and start moving up. I'd love to see a 40-something woman try the Charismatic Young Turk story -- that might be ready to start working too. As we see more female CEOs, the Non-Political Business Wizard story -- Ross Perot, Lee Iaccoca -- might open up as well.

We'll really know that women have made it in American politics when we see a uniquely female leadership story, one that builds on traditionally feminine archetypes. That might take a generation. But some other story will work first.

The Scariest Thing I Read This Week
Like digby and emptywheel, I don't know what to do with articles like this one from Radar magazine. It's frightening. It sounds plausible. But it's totally based on anonymous sources, so maybe it's just one reporter's paranoid fantasy. Should we be scared or not? Beats me.

Here's the main idea: Deep inside some part of the Homeland Security Department, probably FEMA, is a plan to deal with the ultimate emergency -- something that unleashes chaos on the land and threatens the continuity of government. The plan descends from those Cold War plans to keep the country going after nuclear attack, and it contains the option of martial law.

Scary, but not too scary yet. Just about everybody who's thought much about the possibility of apocalyptic disaster assumes there's a plan like that somewhere. But it gets scarier if this plan is not just a wad of paper in a filing cabinet in some underground bunker, but is instead an active program interconnected with all the Bush administration's illegal spying programs. That's the thesis of this article: All the illegal wiretapping and data mining is feeding a database called Main Core, which has records on eight million suspicious Americans, and which will be used to figure out who the government needs to round up and detain at the outset of the national emergency.
It is, of course, appropriate for any government to plan for the worst. But when COG [continuity of government] plans are shrouded in extreme secrecy, effectively unregulated by Congress or the courts, and married to an overreaching surveillance state—as seems to be the case with Main Core—even sober observers must weigh whether the protections put in place by the federal government are becoming more dangerous to America than any outside threat.
Like any good conspiracy theories, this one pulls a lot of threads together. No one has ever explained the real issues behind the dramatic Ashcroft hospital-room scene. Why has the Department of Homeland Security expanded its capacity for large-scale temporary detention? Administration testimony about warrantless wiretapping has always carefully bracketed "this program" without commenting on what other secret programs might be doing. DHS is a likely home for such a program, because it lacks the Congressional oversight and legal restrictions of the CIA, FBI, NSA, or other intelligence agencies. FEMA's feeble performance against natural disasters might be the result of its re-orientation towards political emergencies. And why did the Military Commissions Act of 2006 expand the domestic role of the military?

The right answer to these questions is not to jump to conclusions, but for Congress to soberly investigate. Of course, that would mean avoiding the executive privilege roadblock that has allowed the administration to prevent any serious oversight so far. That's not going to happen until Congress either threatens impeachment or starts putting people in jail under its power of inherent contempt. And so far it isn't ready to go there.

McCain Watch
Fasincating piece in the NYT a week ago Sunday: The McCain Doctrines by Matt Bai. Bai compares the military-policy views of four Vietnam-veteran senators -- McCain, Kerry, Hagel, and Webb -- and makes an insightful point: By spending 1967-1973 as a POW, McCain missed the common experience of the war that the others were having.
During those years, McCain did not share the disillusioning and morally jarring experiences of soldiers like Kerry, Webb and Hagel, who found themselves unable to recognize their enemy in the confusion of the jungle; he never underwent the conversion that caused Kerry, for one, to toss away some of his war decorations during a protest at the Capitol. Whatever anger McCain felt remained focused on his captors, not on his own superiors back in Washington.
McCain compensated for this hole in his experience by studying the Vietnam War after-the-fact at the National War College. There he was taught that we arrived at the right anti-insurgent strategy in Vietnam too late, and that Congress pulled the plug on an effort that was starting to work. That's the lesson he's applying to Iraq.

It briefly looked as if McCain had taken an in-between position on Telecom Amnesty: Give the telecom companies retroactive immunity only after Congress had held rigorous hearings to figure out what they did. Alas, it was an illusion. The McCain campaign has issued a correction: McCain completely supports the Bush administration policy of no-strings amnesty for the telecoms who helped the government illegally spy on their customers.

Slate's Robert Gordon explains why McCain is wrong on health care. When the federal government started allowing interstate banking, all the card companies moved their credit card operations to South Dakota, which gives consumers the fewest rights. McCain's proposal for interstate health insurance would have the same result.

The Washington Post determines that the saving McCain expects to make by limiting earmarks just doesn't add up.

Short Notes
In Iraq, Ayatollah Sistani is turning against us. That's pretty important.

Public Eye magazine discusses the emerging links between the religious right and anti-immigrant groups. The article traces the fault lines in a political coalition that wants to include both working-class whites (who feel threatened by the growth of the American Latino population) and the Catholic Church (which represents most of that population and depends on it for future growth).

Phillip Carter's Intel Dump blog pointed me in the direction of one of his favorite soldier blogs: Kaboom: A Soldier's War Journal and this story about an American platoon in Iraq adopting a stray dog. Small things can be very touching sometimes, like a game of fetch just before dawn in a place that seems abnormal in every other way.

RFK Jr. and Brandon Demelle remind us of all the important stuff that happened this week that the major media never got around to covering. Think of it as a Short Notes inside Short Notes.

A pair of Joes -- Lieberman and Biden -- went back and forth on the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal this week.

Lieberman charges that the Democratic Party has abandoned the strong foreign policy that it stood for under Truman and Kennedy, that after Vietnam it slid into believing "the Cold War was mostly America's fault" -- a position that was reversed under Clinton and now has been reversed back. After 9/11 "I felt strongly that Democrats should embrace the basic framework the president had advanced for the war on terror as our own, because it was our own. But that was not the choice most Democratic leaders made."

Biden points out that there is not a single part of the world where the Lieberman-Bush-McCain foreign policy is working. "On George Bush's watch, Iran, not freedom, has been on the march." He describes 9/11 as a historic opportunity "to unite Americans and the world in common cause" -- an opportunity that the administration blew through policies that "divided Americans from each other and from the world." He concludes: "The Bush-McCain saber rattling is the most self-defeating policy imaginable. It achieves nothing. But it forces Iranians who despise the regime to rally behind their leaders."

I'm sure you're in suspense about which case I find more convincing. Do I favor torture, the surrender of our civil liberties, and pre-emptive war based on false intelligence? Or should we try to represent the democratic values of the world and deserve the good-guy mantle that Bush wants to claim through rhetoric alone? Hmmm. Let me think.

Glenn Greenwald follows the money as the telecoms try to get Congress to let them off the hook for breaking the law. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, one of the groups whose lawsuits will be dropped if telecom immunity passes, reports: "AT&T's spending for three months on lobbying alone is significantly more than the entire EFF budget for a whole year."

Now even the Pentagon is admitting that contractors in Iraq were mismanaged.

In case you missed any part of it, SlateV has a seven-minute summary of everything that's happened in the race for the Democratic nomination.

I don't think I'd have the guts to handle a border-patrol checkpoint like this.

Monday, May 19, 2008


This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. -- Franklin Roosevelt

I am tired of being afraid. ... I am so tired of fear, and I don't want my girls to live in a country, in a world, based on fear. -- Michelle Obama

In This Week's Sift:

Marriage Equality in California. The more same-sex marriages there are, the stranger the objections to it sound.

Targeting Obama. It's no longer acceptable to say "Don't vote for the black guy." But that doesn't mean racism's gone.

The Voter-Fraud Fraud. A phony voter-fraud issue lets the Republicans squeeze out marginal voters.

Short Notes. The Olbermann-O'Reilly feud escalates to GE vs. News Corp. Mad Pride. And John King's close encounter.

One of the great discoveries in the history of marketing is known by the acronym FUD: fear, uncertainty, and doubt. If you represent the status quo, you don't have to make any verifiable charges against your upstart rivals. Instead, you just have to raise FUD. Get people thinking that if they change, something -- you don't have to be clear about what -- might go wrong. In fact, the less clear you are the better. Any specific fear might be confronted and dealt with, but how can your rivals fight people's vague sense that something they haven't considered might come back to bite them?

The weakness of a FUD campaign is that, lacking substance, its effectiveness tends to dissipate all at once, like a fog blown away by the wind.

Marriage Equality in California
No issue in recent years has had a higher FUD-factor than same-sex marriage. Some unnameable thing is going to go horribly wrong if gays and lesbians are allowed to marry. “Barring a miracle,” James Dobson wrote in 2004 as the first same-sex marriages were happening in Massachusetts, "the family as it has been known for more than five millennia will crumble, presaging the fall of Western civilization itself."

You can almost imagine believing that kind of hyperbole when same-sex marriage is some strange theoretical concept. But then you move in next door to Bob and Jim, who have rose bushes make a great peach cobbler, and the idea that they're bringing down Western civilization suddenly seems pretty wacky. The more Bobs and Jims there are, and the more people who live next door to them, the harder it is to raise credible FUD against gay marriage. The fog blows away.

I live about four miles from Massachusetts, which legalized same-sex marriage in 2004. I'm not sure what kind of noise the fall of Western Civilization is supposed to make, but I'm sure I would have heard it. As far as I know, civilization has also not yet collapsed in the Netherlands, which started performing same-sex marriages in 2001. Nor in Spain, Canada, Belgium, or South Africa. Civil unions of one sort or another are currently recognized right here in New Hampshire, as well as in California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maine, New Jersey, Oregon, Vermont, and the District of Columbia. Denmark has been doing them since 1989. The list of other civil-union-recognizing countries is longer than I want to type -- Wikipedia has it -- but includes such avant-garde places as Uruguay and Croatia.

If government-sanctioned homosexual relationships can't even bring down civilization in Uruguay, how bad can they be?

Thursday the California Supreme Court ruled 4-3 that the state's separate-but-almost-equal domestic partnership arrangement isn't good enough. According to their interpretation of the state constitution and its equal-protection clause, California has to have one institution, not separate ones for opposite-sex and same-sex couples. The court leaves the legislature to decide whether that institution will be called "marriage" or "domestic partnership" or something else, but it has to be the same for everybody.

It's been fascinating watching reactions from the usual FUD-slingers, who don't seem to realize that their talking points are becoming increasingly irrelevant. They still talk about unelected judges imposing their liberal vision on the rest of us through judicial activism -- totally ignoring the role of elected officials in bringing this case to trial, as well as the fact that 3 of the 4 judges in the majority were appointed by Republican governors.

History. The California judges outline the history of the case, beginning on page 12 of the decision. In February 2004, the mayor of San Francisco started a process that led to the city issuing marriage licenses to about 4000 same-sex couples. Conservatives went to the courts to stop this, and got this same California Supreme Court to tell San Francisco to knock it off and to nullify the licenses already issued. The city then filed suit claiming that the statute the court had based its ruling on (Proposition 22, passed by voter initiative in 2000) was unconstitutional, a subject the court had not ruled on. That suit was joined by a number of same-sex couples, and then wound its way up the state court system, winning in superior court and losing in appellate court before landing back in the lap of the supremes.

In the meantime, in 2005 and again in 2007, the state legislature passed a same-sex marriage bill, which Governor Schwarzenegger vetoed each time for procedural reasons. (On pages 29-32 of the decision, the court agreed with Schwarzenegger.)

Eventually, this whole thing is going to end up back with the voters anyway. A constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage is likely to be a ballot soon. (Is it just me, or is it crazy to have a system where a simple majority can amend the constitution? I think if I were a California citizen, I'd be gathering signatures on an initiative petition amending the constitution to require a 2/3 vote to amend the constitution.) Prop. 22 got 61% of the vote in 2000, but that was before civilization failed to collapse in Massachusetts, and before the California Domestic Partner Act of 2003 also failed to herald the Apocalypse. It will be much more difficult to raise a significant FUD cloud this time.

Legal reasoning. Legally, all the same-sex marriage decisions look a lot the same. Whenever the government treats some group of people differently from another, it needs to have a reason. How good that reason needs to be depends on how inherently suspect the discrimination is.

For example, where I vote, people whose names begin with A-L stand in a different line from the M-Z people. Nobody suspects that the election officials have anything against either group, and neither line has any particular advantage over the other, so the officials don't have to have much of a reason. "Convenience" is good enough. But now imagine that blacks had a special line that went much slower. "Convenience" wouldn't be nearly good enough to explain that arrangement to a court, because racial discrimination is inherently suspect in a way that alphabetical discrimination isn't.

So all the same-sex marriage cases hang on two questions: How inherently suspect is it to discriminate based on sexual orientation? And how good a reason does the government have for marriage discrimination? Does the government just need to have just a rational reason to discriminate against gay and lesbian couples (a reasonable connection between the discrimination and some legitimate government goal), or a compelling reason (there's just no other way to do whatever it is they're doing). For example, if a town had evidence that its students would learn better in separate boys and girls high schools, it would have a rational reason for creating such schools, but not a compelling reason. But the government has a compelling reason to discriminate against murderers, because society falls apart if you don't.

In California, the appellate court had ruled that the state only needed a rational reason for marriage discrimination, and it had one. The Supreme Court overturned that by ruling that the state needed a compelling reason, and it didn't have one. In Massachusetts, the court had ruled that marriage discrimination lacked even a rational justification. I agree with Massachusetts.

What about the children? When pressed to produce some rational reason for the state to discriminate against same-sex couples, the traditional-values types always claim to represent the best interests of the children. The traditional father-mother family, they say, is the best environment for raising children, and that's why the state should favor it over other types of households.

A bunch of things are wrong with this argument. First, it's ad hoc. People who use this argument against same-sex marriage ignore its other implications -- like not allowing parents to divorce until their children are grown. When I hear the anti-gay-marriage folks propose that, maybe I'll start taking them seriously.

Second, which children does marriage discrimination help? Children being raised by same-sex couples today are clearly harmed by having their households stigmatized. And if marriage discrimination discourages gay and lesbian single parents from forming long-term partnerships, then their children are harmed also. And children being raised by opposite-sex couples -- how does discrimination against same-sex households help them?

The only way this argument makes sense is if we're talking about future children, not existing ones. And then only if the state, by juggling incentives, can induce people to choose heterosexual relationships over homosexual ones. By favoring heterosexual households, you see, the state encourages more people to form them. And that benefits whatever children they may have, I guess, because repressed homosexuals make such good parents.

The state's incentives, however, only make a difference if homosexuality is a choice rather than an orientation. The secular evidence for this notion is pretty thin, but right-wing Christians have theological reasons for believing it. (Sin has to be your decision, not God's. Otherwise sending you to Hell is a miscarriage of divine justice.) So, when you break it down, what you basically have is a religious argument, not a social policy argument.

Finally -- and I left this to the end because it's the hardest objection to explain -- the whole argument is based on bogus statistics. On just about any issue in social science, a small group of people is responsible for most of the dysfunction. If you want to slander some other group of people, you arrange your categories so that they are lumped together with the underperforming group. Then you total up, and -- presto! -- their category is responsible for most of the dysfunction.

Whenever I've chased an opposite-sex-superiority claim back to the source study, they've been comparing children raised by their married biological parents against children raised by everyone else. "Everyone else" includes a substantial number of teen-age single mothers, many of whom are poor and uneducated. And I'm sure you won't be shocked to discover that on average, children of poor, uneducated, teen-age single mothers don't do as well as most other children. So children from traditional married mother-father families, on average, do better than other children, but the reason has nothing to do with homosexuality.

In short, the only real reason to oppose same-sex marriage is because God says it's wrong. If you don't believe that, or if (like a court) you're not allowed to take that argument into account, then there's no reason at all.

Targeting Obama
FUD has played a special role in the Republican strategy in all recent elections, the general point being that if Democrats get power, something really bad will happen. The vaguer that something really bad is, the more effective the campaign. One Democrat after another flails about, trying to prove that something really bad won't happen if he or she gets power. "Under my administration, the United States will not have any more random misfortune than you would ordinarily expect."

It's not a very compelling message, is it?

Against Obama, though, FUD will be even more important due to the way racism works in this era. It is clearly out of bounds for a 21st-century campaign to say "Don't vote for the black guy." Even among friends or in the privacy of their own minds, the vast majority of Americans aren't willing to admit, "I'm not going to vote for that guy because he's black." We know that we're good people, and good people aren't supposed to think like that.

But forcing racism (or sexism or any other prejudice) into the unconscious doesn't make it go away. Instead, a candidate like Obama starts the campaign under a shadow: Many voters have a nebulous sense that there must be something wrong with this guy. Finding some specific wrong feels like a relief: Thank God, now I know why I never liked him. It's not because he's black, it's because he has a wacko pastor, or because he's a Muslim, or because he's not patriotic, or anything other than because he's black. Republicans know that they don't need to offer people a reason to vote against Obama, just an excuse.

This week's excuse is that Obama is "an appeaser". Because he wants to go back to the traditional American practice of talking to our enemies -- Nixon and Mao, Reagan and Gorbachev, Kennedy and Krushchev, etc. -- Obama is like Neville Chamberlain giving Czechoslovakia away to Hitler. Clearly, something really bad would happen if Obama met with Iran's Ahmadinejad. What? No one is saying.

Bush started this smear in a speech to the Israeli parliament, and it was dutifully picked up by the usual shills. (The most embarrassing version of this was conservative talk-radio host Kevin James on Hardball. James kept repeating "appeaser" but seemed to have no idea what it meant. Chris Matthews totally humiliated him. Details on Digby's Hullabaloo.)

McCain (and the usual shills) has been trumpeting a similar talking point about Obama being endorsed by Hamas. The kernel of truth here is that a Hamas guy said something nice about Obama during a radio interview. A comparable situation would be if someone from the KKK said that they'd rather see the white guy (McCain) get elected. But framing this as an "endorsement" implies that Obama wooed Hamas the way McCain wooed John Hagee. The key question in all these issues is: What's the accusation?

By now Democrats should know that trying to appear harmless doesn't work. We've have got to do an FDR and target fear directly, as Michelle Obama does in the video that the lead quote comes from.

The Voter-Fraud Fraud
This issue goes a little beyond FUD. It's a scam based on manufacturing and exploiting fear of something negligibly rare: people showing up at a polling place and falsely claiming to be eligible voters. In response to this bogus fear, Republicans pass laws that make it harder for people on the fringes of society -- usually Democrats -- to vote.

Expect to see much more of this now that the Supreme Court has given its blessing to Indiana's voter ID law, the one that protected the Republic from 12 elderly nuns who tried to vote in the recent Indiana primary.

Sunday the Dallas Morning News provided more evidence that voter fraud is not a serious problem: Texas' Republican attorney general set up a special unit to prosecute voter fraud, got a $1.4 million federal grant to fund it, and in two years has managed to prosecute only 26 cases, 18 of which were technical violations involving how absentee ballots are mailed in -- probably innocent mistakes and certainly not fixable with a voter ID law. None of the cases seem to be part of any larger conspiracy. But the targets were all Democrats and "almost all ... blacks or Hispanics". The cases resulted in "small fines and little or no jail time".

But this "success" allowed the AG to claim (in a brief to the Supreme Court) that he had "obtained numerous indictments, guilty pleas and convictions" of voter fraud. Texas Republicans are now pushing for an Indiana-like voter ID law.

TPM reminds us how high this goes: "
In the case of the US Attorney firings, most of the dismissals targeted prosecutors who refused to use the power of their office to advance the interests of the Republican party by engaging in these kinds of witch hunts."

Missouri Republicans want to up the ante even further. The Center for American Progress totals up the cost of compliance with a proposed Missouri law that voters come to the polls with proof of their citizenship. This is a 2-for-1 deal on manufactured fear: not just voter fraud, but illegal immigrants as well. No one has been able to identify an illegal immigrant who has voted fraudulently, but it would be really scary if it happened, wouldn't it?

Digby: "
I would imagine that there are a whole lot of older people who've never had to prove their citizenship in their lives and wouldn't have a clue about how to go about doing it." The New York Times comments: "The imposition of harsh new requirements to vote has become a partisan issue, but it should not be. These rules are an assault on democracy itself."

Short Notes
One of the more amusing parts of Keith Olbermann's nightly Countdown program on MSNBC is his running feud with Bill O'Reilly of Fox News. Almost every night, some bit of buffoonery from "Bill-O" is one of the three finalists in Countdown's "Worst Person in the World" segment. For his part, O'Reilly has stopped mentioning Olbermann's name, and instead has been going up the ladder, attacking NBC and now NBC's parent corporation, General Electric. (Because GE is winding down its contracts with Iran -- for energy and health care equipment, not weapons -- rather than breaking them, O'Reilly has been targeting them for "doing business right this minute with Iran, who are killing our soldiers.") It's one of those classic high-school Smart Alec vs. Jerk battles, where the smart alec (Olbermann) seems to be having a good time and the jerk (O'Reilly) is taking it seriously. The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz has more detail.

Joe Galloway is trying to stay on top of the story of the ex-generals organized by the Pentagon to repeat administration talking points while claiming to be independent commentators on TV. The media has completely ignored this attack on its credibility since the New York Times broke the story four weeks ago. MediaBloodHound comments on Brian Williams' lack of comment. Media Matters estimates that these compromised "analysts" were quoted 4,500 times on the major news networks.

Have you seen that high-tech election board that CNN's John King mans during their primary election coverage? 23/6 provides an amusing soundtrack for it.

Which is more depressing: That the gap between male and female starting salaries hasn't budged during the Bush years, or that each gender is worse off than it was in 2000?

Digby reviews Nixonland by Rick Perlstein: "you can't begin to understand our current political time without understanding that one."

The New York Times recently had an article about the "Mad Pride" movement to de-stigmatize mental illness. Liz Spikol is part of it, and this video is great. It starts out funny, and then does something else.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Looking Ahead to McCain-Obama

The defenders of freedom are not those who claim and exercise rights which no one assails, or who win shouts of applause by well-turned compliments to liberty in the days of her triumph. They are those who stand up for rights which mobs, conspiracies, or single tyrants put in jeopardy; who contend for liberty in that particular form which is threatened at the moment by the many or the few. – William Ellery Channing

In This Week's Sift:

The Horse Race. Can we finally stop talking about Obama-Clinton and focus on Obama-McCain? The trick for Obama is to make the campaign focus on issues. The trick for McCain is to focus on Obama.

Judging McCain's Judges. John McCain outlined his judicial philosophy last Tuesday. Any Clinton supporter who's thinking about sitting out the fall election should pay attention.

Short Notes. Life in Baghdad. McCain and the environment. Stamping out wizardry in Florida's schools. And what IOKIYAR really means.

The Horse Race
After the Indiana and North Carolina primaries, the major media proclaimed the Democratic presidential race over. During the coverage of those primaries Tuesday night, official media spokesman Tim Russert said: "We now know who the Democratic nominee is going to be." And suddenly, it was now OK to point out that Hillary Clinton had no chance to win the nomination.

Wednesday morning the Obama-supporting blogs were too exasperated by the media group-think to be grateful that the major pundits were finally agreeing with them. OpenLeft's Chris Bowers was typical:
I spent a good amount of time last night ranting about how the national media called the nomination campaign for Obama after the North Carolina and Indiana results, even though their logic for doing so could have been applied at any point in the campaign since the Wisconsin and Hawaii nomination contests on February 19th. ... Essentially, since February 19th analysis of the campaign revealed that Clinton had virtually no chance of closing the delegate gap, and pretending otherwise was just an exercise in kabuki-theater where Obama was ritually gutted by the national media for the amusement of a reality-ignoring pundit elite.
Anyway, the media still mostly refuses to move on and consider the McCain-Obama race, because it's much more interesting to speculate on whether Hillary will exit gracefully or pull the whole Democratic Party down on top of herself, a la Samson. Clintonites seem to think that calls for her to withdraw are sexist, a charge that I'm sure puzzles supporters of male ex-candidates like Dodd, Biden, Edwards, and Richardson. You lose, you leave -- what's strange about that? The bizarre thing in this story isn't that she's being urged to stand down, but that her candidacy continued to be taken seriously after she lost ten straight primaries and caucuses in February.

Moving on to McCain/Obama: It's really clear how this race is going to go. If it's decided on issues, Obama wins. McCain can't defend his position on the war. Nobody other than McCain and a few neocons wants a new war with Iran. His economic policy, like Bush's, boils down to don't-tax-the-rich -- and that's been working so well for the rest of us. He promises to nominate more judges like Alito and Roberts, and Justice Stevens will be 92 by the end of the next president's term, so Roe v. Wade is pretty much history if McCain gets in. His health care plan (which I described last week) amounts to the claim that the insurance companies would work miracles for us if government only got out of their way.

Play campaign consultant for a moment: Do you see anything here he can run on? Each of his positions has a small-but-dedicated constituency that could put him over the top if the rest of the electorate divided. But none is close to being a majority view. And they're all virtually identical to positions identified with George W. Bush, who has the highest disapproval rating ever recorded.

McCain isn't suicidal, so we can conclude that he won't run on issues. Like every conservative candidate since Reagan, he'll run on image. He's the maverick and Obama is the out-of-touch liberal. He's a war hero and Obama is a wimp. He's a patriot and Obama hates America. Obama is the candidate of homosexuals, of angry black radicals like Jeremiah Wright, of bomb-throwing hippies like William Ayers, and of Osama bin Laden. (Did you know he's a Muslim? I read it on the internet.) Again and again, we'll hear from "ordinary" Americans saying things like: "I don't know what it is about Obama, but there's something just not right about him. He's not like everyday folks." (Hint: He's black. Maybe that's the problem.)

That strategy is the subtext of Time's advice in McCain's 7 Steps to Beating Obama. The steps revolve around destroying Obama's image, and say not a word about issues. The question is whether McCain can throw this mud without dirtying his own image. And that largely depends on whether he continues to enjoy the complete adulation of the media. If he can still be portrayed as the upright, straight-shooting candidate while saying things like "It's clear who Hamas wants to be the next president," then he might pull it off.

Judging McCain's Judges
If anything will bring Clinton-supporting women to Obama in the fall, it's going to be their fear of John McCain's judicial appointments. Obligingly, McCain outlined his judicial philosophy in a speech at Wake Forest on the same day as the North Carolina and Indiana primaries. The headline-making quote from this speech was:
I have my own standards of judicial ability, experience, philosophy, and temperament. And Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito meet those standards in every respect. They would serve as the model for my own nominees if that responsibility falls to me.
McCain's people deny the characterization of his prospective presidency as George Bush's third term. But when it comes to judges, he proudly says that he will model his choices on Bush's choices.

And that's not all he says. If you have the time, read or watch the whole speech on the McCain web site. Far from being "maverick" or "moderate" in any way, the speech is a classic conservative rant against liberal "judicial activism". An excellent critique of the speech -- making a number of the same points I'm making but in more detail -- was posted by OpenLeft contributor Lang. The Balkinization blog has a number of comments: notably by Jack Balkin and Andrew Koppelman. My own opinions about so-called judicial activism haven't changed since my Wide Liberty essay of 2005.

Somehow, no matter how many Republican presidents we have or how many judges they appoint, Republicans can still run against the judiciary. (Eli on FireDogLake claims the root cause here is that Republicans hate the law. Judges and lawyers are just symbols of that underlying curse of legality.) Of the current Supreme Court, for example, only two justices were appointed by Democrats (Ginsberg and Breyer, both by Clinton). Ford appointed Stevens. Reagan named Scalia and Kennedy. Thomas and Souter are the responsibility of Bush the First, and Roberts and Alito can be charged to the account of Bush the Second. Given that Republicans have held the White House for 5 of the 7 terms since 1980, that's probably typical of the federal judiciary as a whole. If there's a problem with our judges, it's a problem that Republicans have caused.

The most disturbing part of McCain's speech comes early. After praising the Founders and the checks and balances they established to keep government in line, McCain notes that "There is one great exception in our day" to the success of the check-and-balance system. Is it the Bush administration's overwhelming abuse of executive power? Its defiance of Congressional subpoenas? Signing statements that "interpret" laws to say whatever the president wants them to say? Specious legal opinions that the Justice Department writes to circumvent our treaty obligations not to torture? Creating a law-free zone in Guantanamo ? Holding an American citizen in solitary confinement for three and a half years and driving him virtually insane before charging him with any crime?

What could this "one great exception" be? None of the above. It's "the common and systematic abuse of our federal courts by the people we entrust with judicial power." Other than that, McCain thinks checks and balances are working fine.

McCain gives several examples of this "abuse of our federal courts" -- one of which is incoherent. He cites the Kelo case in which a woman's home was taken by eminent domain so that a private developer could build on the site. By a 5-4 majority, the Supreme Court refused to intervene and the seizure went forward. Now, McCain may not like the way this case turned out -- I'm not sure I do either -- but it's an example of judicial restraint, not judicial activism. "Real activism," McCain says, is democratic and tries to change the hearts and minds of the electorate.
By contrast, activist lawyers and activist judges follow a different method. They want to be spared the inconvenience of campaigns, elections, legislative votes, and all of that. They don't seek to win debates on the merits of their argument; they seek to shut down debates by order of the court.
Well, Kelo was an example of elected officials exercising their judgment. But rather than undoing that decision via the ballot box, McCain wanted the courts to undo it. Somehow, failing to undo a local government's action is "judicial activism".

This up-is-down reasoning is typical of such rants. Lang cites a Yale study of the 64 cases from 1994-2005 where the Court struck down federal laws. The researchers totaled up how often each justice voted in favor of the "activist" position to strike down a law. By that measure of activism, the conservative judges were far more activist than the liberals. Conservative Clarence Thomas voted with the law-overturning majority 66% of the time and liberal Stephen Breyer 28%, with judges lining up in between in almost exactly conservative-to-liberal order.

McCain's speech also denounced "airy constructs the Court has employed" in contrast to "the clear meanings of the Constitution." He obviously intended to imply that the right to privacy (which protects a woman's right to choose to have an abortion) is such a construct. But conservatives always fail to note other legal constructs. The words "executive privilege" appear nowhere in the Constitution. And the notion that corporations have the same legal status as persons and so can claim the full Bill of Rights -- that's a construction of the Supreme Court as well. And no one can find a quote from the Founders that remotely resembles the Bush administration's theory of the unitary executive.

A true constitutional minimalist (somebody who denounces every constitutional interpretation not specifically envisioned by the Founders) could start an interesting discussion and raise the general level of debate in this country. But that's not at all what McCain is doing. He, like President Bush before him, wants the courts to be a weapon for conservatism. He's in favor of aggressively conservative judges, and only applies the negative frame of "judicial activism" to decisions that he disagrees with.

Short Notes
Linking to myself: Thursday I wrote an essay slightly too long for the Sift -- Pirate Treasure: Why oil and democracy don't mix. It explains why Iraq's oil wealth is a hindrance to its becoming a democracy, not an asset -- and why that should have been obvious from the beginning. It's on my Open Source Journalism site, and I posted it as Pericles on DailyKos. I also recently preached a sermon at my Unitarian church in Bedford, Mass. It's called Some Assembly Required, and you can find it on my religious blog Free and Responsible Search.

Sunday's Washington Post described the everyday life of an Iraqi businessman who the reporter has known since before the invasion. His family lives in exile in Jordan; he won't live in the house he owns in an upscale neighborhood. The dangers of the Saddam era are past,
But in this post-Saddam time, other threats impose themselves. Material ostentation draws kidnappers, political engagement invites assassination, and time spent outside the seeming safety of four walls carries the risk of being caught in the middle of horrific violence. In 2006, Yousif's cousin, an engineer, "was driving in the street, and they shot him," Yousif recalled when I met with him in Baghdad in March. The family has no idea who killed the man, or why, or even if there was a reason.
Monday's Washington Post describes McCain's environmental record as a "balancing act". Someone with less media admiration than McCain might be described as inconsistent or flip-flopping. In the 12th paragraph they do get around to noting that the League of Conservation Voters gives his environmental voting record a 24 rating, as opposed to Obama's 86.

The Onion quantifies a trend many others have wondered about: There are now only four acceptable things a candidate can say without offending someone. The Onion News Network has a video report on John McCain's plans to save the government money by disbanding the Secret Service and defending himself.

A substitute teacher in Land o' Lakes, Florida claims to have lost his job after being accused of "wizardry". He did a magic trick for his students, making a toothpick vanish and reappear. If they don't crack down now, I guess, somebody will saw a student in half.

Cristina Page on Huffington Post combined state-by-state data from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy with NARAL's state-by-state ratings on how pro-choice or pro-life a state is. Conclusion: In pro-life states teens are more sexually active, more likely to have had sex before age 13, and more likely to have four or more sexual partners. This pattern has been noted by a number of observers and comes up in a variety of statistics, but somehow never becomes common knowledge: States where abstract "family values" are politically popular are usually states where actual family values are in bad shape. As of 2005 (the most recent stats I could find) Massachusetts and Connecticut still had the lowest divorce rate in the nation, with Arkansas and Oklahoma the highest (not counting Nevada, which does a lot of divorces for out-of-staters).

The latest anti-evolution tactic recently failed in the Florida legislature. The creationist Discovery Institute is pushing an "academic freedom" bill to protect public-school teachers who argue against evolution in their classrooms. Their online petition warns against "self-appointed defenders of the theory of evolution who are waging a malicious campaign to demonize and blacklist anyone who disagrees with them." But the St. Petersburg Times doubts the bill's premise: "most of the evolution-related pressure being put on science teachers is aimed at those who want to teach the scientific consensus about evolution, not those who want to teach the 'full range of scientific views' -- which would presumably include the fringe notion that evolution is not backed by strong evidence."

Internet acronyms can be frustratingly obtuse, but one I recommend learning is IOKIYAR: "It's OK if you're a Republican." Senator Vitter frequents a house of prostitution? So what? IOKIYAR. Larry Craig makes a gay pass at a policeman, but he can stay in office because IOKIYAR. McCain breaks campaign finance laws he helped write? Never mind, IOKIYAR. Jerry Falwell blamed America for 9/11 every bit as much as Jeremiah Wright did, but IOKIYAR. Rush Limbaugh's drug problem? IOKIYAR. The latest example is Cindy McCain's tax returns, which she recently pledged that she will never release. Of course, the "liberal" Washington Post complained in 2004 when Theresa Kerry tried the exact same maneuver. ("There may well be nothing of great note in Ms. Heinz Kerry's tax returns other than the scope of her wealth. But with her husband seeking the presidency, her financial dealings, as well as his, ought to be as open as possible. Keeping her returns private would set a bad precedent.") And what do you think the reaction would have been if Hillary hadn't included Bill's income in her disclosures? But never mind, Cindy. IOKIYAR.

Monday, May 5, 2008

John McCain's Health Plan

Everyone takes the limits of his own vision for the limits of the world. – Arthur Schopenhauer

In This Week's Sift: What McCain Wants To Do With Health Care

Short Notes. Deaths in Iraq are back up. The gas tax holiday. And the New York Times keeps recycling the same old experts.

John McCain's Health Care Proposals
Tuesday John McCain gave a speech in Tampa where he outlined his health care proposals. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton long ago announced detailed health care plans, so we now have enough information to start comparing. Just to remind myself that there are actual issues that matter, I'm going to spend an entire Sift looking at what McCain wants to do about one of our most important problems.

The Problem: expensive care, poor results, uncertainty
In a nutshell, the problem with the American health care system is that we spend a lot and we don't get commensurate results. Wikipedia has a well-laid-out table of relevant numbers, which seem to come from 2003. Compared to the other seven countries in the table, the U.S. spends the most per capita ($5711 compared to second-most-expensive Germany at $3204) and has the lowest life expectancy (77.5 years compared to six countries in the 79.5-80.5 range and outlier Japan at 82.5). These statistics lump together public and private spending, and so are an apples-to-apples comparison, as opposed to claims that health care is "free" in countries where it is paid for by the government.

Not captured in those poor overall statistics is the uncertainty Americans face. The Census Bureau reports that 47 million residents of the United States were uninsured in 2006 -- that's the number you hear most often. Conservatives claim it is misleading because about 10 million are non-citizens and 15.7 million had annual household incomes over $50,000 -- and so, conservatives assume, could have bought insurance had they been so inclined. (You can find these numbers on page 21 [page 29 in the PDF file] of the Census Bureau report.) In addition, some large number of uninsured people are between jobs and will have insurance again in a few months. (McCain says about half; I'm not sure what his source is.) So it's hard to estimate exactly how many of those 47 million are in the most sympathetic category: American citizens who are more-or-less permanently consigned to the mercies of emergency rooms for their health-care needs. Wild guess: 10-20 million. That's less than 47 million, certainly, but should we be happy about it?

There are other problems with the attempts to lowball the numbers: If being uninsured is a revolving door, then many more than 47 million have been without insurance for some period of months; any poorly timed health problem could have thrown them into bankruptcy. (The revolving door is more like the spinning cylinder of a revolver in Russian roulette.) And consider those non-citizens: When the next epidemic strikes, we're going to wish they had access to health care just for our own selfish reasons. (I wonder how many of the janitors in my apartment building are citizens and how many have health insurance. We touch so many of the same objects.) And some of the revolving-door people will only sort of be insured again when they get their next job: their pre-existing conditions may not be covered.

And that brings us to the next problem: The rigidity of our health-care system spills over into other areas. Because their coverage is tied to their jobs and a new insurer might not cover their pre-existing conditions, some large number of Americans are locked into jobs that are unfulfilling, trap them in an unfortunate living situation, or fail to use their skills well. One of the U.S.'s economic advantages -- the mobility and flexibility of our labor force -- is being compromised.

McCain vs. the Democrats
By the time the candidates start debating health care, a lot of options have already been closed off. None of the three candidates propose a single-payer system similar to those used by the other countries in the Wikipedia table -- the ones where people live longer and spend less. All three leave most of the system in the private sector -- private health insurance companies, private hospitals, and privately employed doctors. (Kucinich was the most popular candidate who proposed a single-payer system -- and he wasn't very popular.) All three also retain some version of the major public-sector programs: Medicare, Medicaid, and the Veteran's Administration hospital system.

Compared to McCain's proposals, the difference between the Clinton and Obama plans is negligible. The two Democrats differ mostly about whether to mandate coverage, i.e., penalize people who don't buy health insurance. Clinton's plan, with mandates, is probably better from a public-health standpoint. Obama's plan, without, is probably easier to sell politically. Clinton's plan could easily turn into Obama's as it makes its way through Congress.

But the philosophical difference between McCain and the Democrats is sharp: Obama and Clinton believe that the federal government has to take responsibility for making health coverage available and affordable. McCain believes that the federal government should try to create conditions that encourage the market to solve the problem, with the primary responsibility for plugging gaps in the market falling to the states. So although McCain can say things that sound just like the Democrats:

We want a system of health care in which everyone can afford and acquire the treatment and preventative care they need, and the peace of mind that comes with knowing they are covered. Health care in America should be affordable by all, not just the wealthy. It should be available to all, and not limited by where you work or how much you make. It should be fair to all; providing help where the need is greatest, and protecting Americans from corporate abuses.

really he's just expressing a desire rather than taking responsibility for achieving a goal. It's like when a president promises "good jobs for everyone who wants to work" -- that doesn't mean that the government will hire all the unemployed, only that the government will pursue policies that it hopes will encourage the market to create jobs.

Insurance, employment, and pre-existing conditions
For example, consider how the candidates deal with the problem of losing your coverage when you lose or leave a job. Obama and Clinton would open up the Federal Employees Health Benefit Plan to all Americans. In other words, you'd get the same health insurance options that a federal employee has. Since your eligibility depends just on being an American rather than on working for a particular company, you stay covered (or can switch to the FEHB plan) when you leave a job. Both would use government money to make insurance cheaper for most people -- which they claim to pay for by letting the Bush tax cuts on the wealthy lapse. (I haven't checked whether those numbers work.)

McCain's proposes to change the tax policy that favors employer-based group insurance over individual insurance. He would provide an annual tax credit -- $2500 for individuals and $5000 for families -- to people who buy their own insurance. He claims this is equivalent to the tax credit an employer gets currently. So while your employer's insurance plan doesn't go with you when you leave a job, the federal tax benefit does.

Now, what does that do and not do? It doesn't put new government money into the system; it just reshuffles tax breaks that already exist. It mitigates your expense if you have to buy your own plan, but doesn't guarantee that you'll be able to find a plan. Elizabeth Edwards has pointed out that as cancer survivors, neither she nor McCain would be able to find an insurance company willing to take them on. McCain recognizes that gap in the system, and says that he will "work tirelessly to address the problem. But I won't create another entitlement program that Washington will let get out of control." His speech suggests (without making any commitments) that the federal government will assist the states in setting up subsidized pools to cover "the uninsurables."

And finally, a tax credit only does you good to the extent that you pay tax. In 2007 a family had to have taxable income of $38,550 before they owed $5000 in federal income tax. If you just lost your job, that tax credit may not help much.

Market magic
The "magic" in McCain's plan -- say that word sarcastically if you're liberal and reverently if you're conservative -- is in what he imagines all these newly empowered individual health-care consumers will do and how the market will respond to them.

The key to real reform is to restore control over our health-care system to the patients themselves. Right now, even those with access to health care often have no assurance that it is appropriate care. ... When families are informed about medical choices, they are more capable of making their own decisions, less likely to choose the most expensive and often unnecessary options, and are more satisfied with their choices. We took an important step in this direction with the creation of Health Savings Accounts, tax-preferred accounts that are used to pay insurance premiums and other health costs. These accounts put the family in charge of what they pay for. And, as president, I would seek to encourage and expand the benefits of these accounts to more American families.

The vision here is that ordinary health care would be purchased piecemeal, like groceries, with individuals bearing the cost (out of their tax-sheltered health savings accounts) and being backed up by insurance only for expensive illnesses. Savings come because families will purchase less health care. If a doctor wanted to do an expensive test to rule out some unlikely possibility, a cost-conscious family could say "No, thank you."

And McCain envisions the personal-health-care market responding the way that the personal-computer market has -- with ever-improving quality and ever-shrinking prices. This creative interplay of supply and demand is what McCain sees missing in government programs that would
replace the inefficiency, irrationality, and uncontrolled costs of the current system with the inefficiency, irrationality, and uncontrolled costs of a government monopoly. We'll have all the problems, and more, of private health care -- rigid rules, long waits and lack of choices, and risk degrading its great strengths and advantages including the innovation and life-saving technology that make American medicine the most advanced in the world.
In order to foster this competition, McCain proposes creating a single set of federal health-insurance regulations rather than the current system of state regulations.
Right now, there is a different health insurance market for every state. Each one has its own rules and restrictions, and often guarantees inadequate competition among insurance companies. Often these circumstances prevent the best companies, with the best plans and lowest prices, from making their product available to any American who wants it. We need to break down these barriers to competition, innovation and excellence, with the goal of establishing a national market to make the best practices and lowest prices available to every person in every state.
Market realities
I've tried to be objective and fair up to this point . Now I'll be opinionated: This is fantasy. The health-care market is special in ways that make McCain's magical-competition vision ridiculous.

Health insurance companies make money in two ways, one constructive and the other destructive. The constructive opportunity is through risk-pooling: Being sure that your potential losses will be covered is worth more to you that your fair share of the losses of the entire pool of people being insured, so you're willing to pay a premium large enough that the company makes an overall profit.

But the big money in private health insurance isn't in risk-pooling, but in risk-shifting. If you're an insurance company, you want to insure the people who don't get sick and not wind up paying for the people who do get sick. Every time you insure somebody who doesn't get sick, that's 100% profit. But every time you insure an Elizabeth Edwards (or my wife, another cancer survivor), you blow the premiums paid by dozens (or even hundreds) of healthy people. There's nothing like this in other markets. If you sell computers or cars, the more you sell the more money you make. You don't need to worry about selling to the wrong customers.

Left to their own devices, health-insurance companies will compete by risk-shifting, not risk-pooling, because that's where the real money is. They'll love to have your business until you get sick, and then they'll do their best to get rid of you. The more freedom the market allows the insurance companies, the more nakedly they will pursue this strategy.

The second unusual feature of the health-care market is that consumers are not the well-informed decision-makers that McCain imagines. When the doctor tells you that your daughter needs this operation right away or she's going to die, are you going to spend a week in the library researching the question? Even if you had the week to spend, would you trust your rationality under that kind of stress?

My wife, who could never get insurance on her own, gets us insurance through her employer. We have a choice of several plans, which we can change annually if we want. Are we making the best choice? I have no idea. Nobody does. We trust that the employer has vetted the plans, and we've had mostly good experiences so far, so we stay with what we have. People who haven't been sick don't even get that much information. Now shift into that health-insurance-account vision: I'm going to negotiate individually to get the best deal out of the surgeons, the hospitals, the labs that do our blood tests, and everybody else in the supply chain. And I'm especially going to do it when either I or my wife have major illnesses. Not likely.

In competitive markets full of customers as ignorant as I would be without an employer cutting down my choices, competition happens mostly through image advertising. St. Marie Antoinette's Hospital "really cares." The Beneficent Insurance Company hires attractive young women with chipper voices to answer your calls. The "best" doctors are with the Upscale Medical Group. The more competition we put into the system, the more money will be spent on TV commercials with messages like that rather than on providing care that helps people get well.

Trillion with a 't'
Finally, it's very hard for voters to wrap their minds around the sheer scale of the health-care market. Americans spend about $2 trillion of public and private money each year on health care. In a system that big, it's easy to come up with ideas that seem like they ought to save big money, but actually make no visible dent. Take malpractice expenses. As McCain says:
Another source of needless cost and trouble in the health care system comes from the trial bar. Every patient in America must have access to legal remedies in cases of bad medical practice. But this vital principle of law and medicine is not an invitation to endless, frivolous lawsuits from trial lawyers who exploit both patients and physicians alike.
Tort reform is a standard conservative cost-saving proposal in all fields. But the total malpractice payments in America run about $5-6 billion annually. That sounds like real money, but it's less than $3 out of every $1000 of our total health-care spending. Eliminate all malpractice cases -- including the ones where deserving patients get money they need -- and you will have made not the slightest dent in our medical budget. All such savings in McCain's plan, I predict, would be swamped by the increased advertising.

Summing up
McCain doesn't propose putting any new federal money into health care, so you won't get a break that way. If he succeeds in pushing the insurance market towards individual policies rather than employer-centered groups, you'll lose any bargaining power that your employer might have. If the health-savings-account model takes hold, you'll have to make a huge number of decisions without having the proper information or expertise. Creating a national rather than state-by-state market will prevent your state government from giving you any more leverage than the federal government wants to give you. Cost savings are illusory.

In short: In McCain's plan, your power goes down relative to the insurance companies. What you'll get in exchange for that is not clear.

Short Notes
Chris Bowers, who wasn't supporting Hillary anyway, reports:
The gas tax holiday episode collects all of my worst fears about a possible second Clinton presidency in a single, dark, place that I haven't entered since the 1990's. Are we to suffer through another Democratic President who will make impromptu, right-ward shifts toward bad policy, justified in nonsensical, Orwellian language, all the while claiming such a move must be done because it will score huge political points even though it is ultimately a bad political calculation, and then threaten the entire Democratic Party to fall in line behind such a move or else? This is basically all of my worst fears about Hillary Clinton becoming President rolled up into one giant ball of tin-foil and dropped on my front porch.
U.S. troop deaths in Iraq had leveled off at about 40 a month before shooting up to 54 in April. Funny how you don't hear people say "the Surge is working" so much any more. Back in November, when deaths had dropped into the 20s after being over 100 every month last summer, you could almost share John McCain's fantasy that our casualties were on their way to zero, and that an Iraq occupation might become no different than having troops in Germany or Korea. But the downward trend stopped well short of zero, and we have to think about how long we're willing to keep losing those 40+ every month.

Foreign policy experts seem to have some weird form of tenure -- no mistakes can possibly get them thrown out of the fraternity. For the fifth anniversary of Mission Accomplished, the New York Times pulled together articles by Richard Perle, Paul Bremer, and a bunch of other people who helped get us into this mess. What do the people who were right in 2003 think? The NYT isn't interested in that question.