Monday, August 24, 2009

One Brave Rush

I by no means wish to die. Yet, were there any cause, in this whole chaos of human struggle, worth a sane man's dying for, and which my death would benefit, then -- provided, however, the effort did not involve an unreasonable amount of trouble -- methinks I might be bold to offer up my life. If Kossuth, for example, would pitch the battlefield of Hungarian rights within an easy ride of my abode, and choose a mild, sunny morning, after breakfast, for the conflict, Miles Coverdale would gladly be his man, for one brave rush upon the levelled bayonets. Further than that, I should be loath to pledge myself.

-- Nathaniel Hawthorne, "Miles Coverdale's Confession," The Blithedale Romance

In this week's Sift:

  • The Enthusiasm Gap. As the healthcare battle gets down to the critical juncture, progressives are discouraged while conservatives are up in arms. There are more of us than of them, but will all of us show up?
  • The Ridge Revelation. What was once an accusation of crazy leftists turns out (again) to be true. But in the media, the people who were wrong about this are still in control, and still brushing off the people who were right.
  • A Last Blast of Summer Reading. A Brown student goes undercover at a religious-right university, and a B.U. law professor hits the road -- after stopping for a beer at Grendel's.
  • Short Notes. Nate Silver notes that the healthcare bill is being worked out by the senators most dependent on corporate money. An upcoming Supreme Court case might open the spigot of still more corporate money. Glenn Beck's resemblance to Father Coughlin. Kerry and Gore must be wondering: Why is John McCain constantly on TV? Rachel Maddow orders pizza. And more.

The Enthusiasm Gap

Here's where we stand on health care: Congress will reconvene September 8, the day after Labor Day. Neither house has yet passed a healthcare bill. The House seems likely to pass a bill with a public option, the Senate likely to pass one without it -- and watered down in a variety of other ways, probably. It then goes through the reconciliation process, which can be pretty arcane. (An explanation follows after the horizontal line.)

The August recess seems to have been at least a short-term win for the Republicans. (Long-term, I wonder how many swing voters they alienated.) They turned out people for the Congressional townhall meetings, and those people were loud enough to make themselves heard.

Another kind of enthusiasm gap is showing up in the polls: For example in Virginia -- a state Obama won last fall -- the Republican gubernatorial candidate is ahead because more McCain voters than Obama voters say they'll vote in 2010. Nate Silver generalizes to the rest of the country like this:

the depth of Republican support is starting to rival the breadth of Democratic support. ... the Democrats don't have a mass movement right now. They have an electorate that's maybe 60 percent unaware of the threat that things like health care are under in Washington, 20 percent aware but burned out or ambivalent, and 10 percent both aware and engaged but busy fighting with one another. That doesn't leave very many Democrats left to stand up and shout back.

Which leaves Obama's people wondering: Where are the crowds that Obama drew in 2008? And progressive bloggers are finger-pointing right back: Where is the candidate that inspired those crowds? Paul Krugman writes:

But there’s a point at which realism shades over into weakness, and progressives increasingly feel that the administration is on the wrong side of that line.

Mike Lux adds:

But what worries me the most is the hard-core Obama people I know, the ones who were most excited about him during the campaign who are growing so disillusioned.

Why disillusioned? Because we're still doing extraordinary rendition, Guantanamo is still open, Afghanistan is escalating, the Bush crimes are being swept under the rug, and there's been no clean break on things like warrantless wiretapping. Anybody who thought electing Obama would open the door on a new America is bound to be disillusioned.

But if those feelings are causing you to sit on your hands, it's worth watching the speech President Clinton gave to the recent Netroots Nation conference (of liberal bloggers). Clinton's speech is all about the long view. Hecklers bring him back to the least progressive moments of his administration -- don't ask don't tell and the Defense of Marriage Act -- and Bill defends doing what he did. He emphasizes that it sometimes takes 20 years to get what you want -- but that if you let yourself get discouraged and give up, you won't get what you want even in 20 years.

The Congress Matters blog continues to be the go-to spot for following the arcane procedures legislation must go through to become law. David Waldman explains how it is possible to pass a bill (i.e. health care) with 51 Senate votes. There are two ways: You can craft a bill very carefully so that it satisfies a bunch of rules that allow it to pass with a majority vote after it has been reconciled with the corresponding House bill -- which may or may not be possible here. But further than that, you can just ignore the Senate parliamentarian and do it. Republicans have done this kind of thing in the past -- they fired an uncooperative parliamentarian to get one of Bush's tax cuts through. But despite giving warnings about the horrible precedent such a thing would set, Democrats have never retaliated. Waldman thinks this failure-to-retaliate itself sets a bad precedent. (Tom Tomorrow would probably agree.)

Reconciliation processes are being studied now because Democrats in the Senate are finally starting to realize the obvious: No Republicans are ever going to vote for the healthcare bill, no matter what is in it. So what are those "bipartisan" negotiations about, anyway? In a normal negotiation, you give a little ground to get more support. But no matter what the Democrats give up -- single payer, the public option, and so on -- no Republicans pledge support. Senator Grassley wouldn't even commit to supporting a bill if he personally thought it was a good bill.

Healthcare co-ops have been proposed as an alternative to the public option. They'd be non-profit instead of public, and so would provide some kind of check on the private insurance companies, at least in theory. But as Washington and Lee Professor Timothy Stoltzfus Jost describes them, they don't sound very promising.

Until I read it, I didn't believe this op-ed could be as bad as my friend said it was. Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal printed "An Anesthesiologist's Take on Health-Care Reform," by Dr. Ronald Dworkin.

The gist of the article is this: Doctors know they have to take good care of rich people, and this leads to good work habits that improve the care of poor people too. I'm not exaggerating:

When a poor person complains in most environments, no one listens. But in health care, through a common private insurance system, poor people go to the same hospitals and doctors as rich people and thus enjoy the benefit of rich people's power.

But if there's a public option in healthcare, and increased taxes on high-wage professionals to pay for it, doctors like Dworkin just won't deal with the public plan. They'll cut back their hours and only work for higher-paying private insurance plans, splitting the health-care system in two. They'll do that because

Most doctors no longer think of their job as a calling. ... When the novelty of their career wears off, they continue to work but do so primarily to make a good living and retire while still healthy.

Or at least doctors like Dworkin think that way. After the system splits,

The poor and middle-class will be left to flounder alone inside the public system. Government-run health care will become like the public schools.

which suck, of course. WSJ readers know that without being told. I love the word choice here: Once the upper 1% peels off, the rest of us are "alone". Whatever shall we do without the rich to fight our battles?

Dworkin closes with the usual conservative fear-mongering, leading to: "Needless deaths will result."

Forget about healthcare for a moment. Forget the personal hubris of a man who imagines himself irreplaceable. The really striking thing in this article is Dworkin's Gilded-Age attitude: In any environment, only the rich can expect to have their needs met; the rest of us just have to hope we can ride on their coattails. It's pointless to try to improve public health, public schools, or public services of any kind, because by the nature of things, the public can't get good service. Only the rich can get good service.

If that attitude ever becomes widespread and overt, eventually there will indeed be "needless deaths". There will be a revolution, and all the Ronald Dworkins will go up against the wall.

The Ridge Revelation

Little by little, we're finding out that our worst speculations about the Bush administration were true. The latest comes from the new book by Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, where he expresses his suspicion that terrorist threat levels were manipulated for political purposes.

That got covered pretty well by the mainstream media. But it touched off an interesting discussion in the blogosphere that hasn't been covered. It started with this column by Atlantic's Marc Ambinder, which (before he changed it) said:

Journalists, including myself, were very skeptical when anti-Bush liberals insisted that what Ridge now says is true, was true. We were wrong. Our skepticism about the activists' conclusions was warranted because these folks based their assumption on gut hatred for President Bush, and not on any evaluation of the raw intelligence.

And even after being called out on this, he wrote a second post re-affirming:

I still think that some journalists were right to be skeptical of the doubters at the time. I think that some journalists were correct to question how they arrived at the beliefs they arrived at.

Glenn Greenwald was not pleased:

Throughout the Bush years, those who said demonstrably true things were continuously dismissed as fringe, conspiracy-driven leftist-losers: those who questioned whether Saddam really had WMDs; those who argued that the invasion of Iraq would lead to long-term military bases in that country; those who worried that warrantless eavesdropping and Patriot Act powers would lead to abuses; those who opposed the war in Afghanistan on the ground that it would be drag on for years with no resolution, etc. etc.

Having been proven right about all of those things hasn't changed perceptions any at all. As Ambinder's comments today reflect, the paramount unchangeable Beltway Truth is that those who distrust government claims are unSerious Fringe Leftist Losers. Even when they turn out to be right, they're still that.

Marcy Wheeler always writes more coolly than Glenn, but had basically the same reaction. She calls Ambinder on the "false binary" of either having access to the raw intelligence or just being a Bush-hater.
God forbid a journalist use simple empiricism--retrospectively matching terror alerts with reports on which they were based--to assess the terror alerts. God forbid a journalist learn that we went to Code Orange because someone claimed terrorists were going to take down the Brooklyn Bridge with a blow torch, and from that learn to be skeptical of terror alerts going forwards. It's not as if, after all, the election eve alert was a one-off, the only alert in which the hype was later shown to be over-hype. There was a pattern.
Yeah, there was a pattern: With very few exceptions, the mainstream media refused to do any serious investigative reporting about the Bush administration, reported as fact whatever their inside sources told them, and then ridiculed anyone less gullible than themselves. And now that it's history, no lessons have been learned. At virtually every network and newspaper, the same people who missed story after story during the Bush years are still in charge, still on the air, still claiming that even if they were wrong, they were wrong for the right reasons.

A Last Blast of Summer Reading

I keep forgetting to mention one of the more enjoyable books I've read this summer: The Unlikely Disciple by Kevin Roose. Roose is a freshman deep in the heart of liberal academia -- Brown University in Providence -- when he has a crazy idea: Rather than do a semester abroad someplace like Europe or the Third World, why not visit a really foreign culture: Jerry Falwell's Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia? Everyone who tries to talk him out of it -- his parents, his friends, his lesbian aunt -- just prove the idea's power. They're all afraid that the born-agains will do some voodoo to his brain and he'll never come back, a worry that seldom comes up when you plan to go to Bangladesh.

Liberty and Brown don't have a student-exchange program, and Roose doesn't picture Liberty agreeing to a straight I'm-here-to-study-you-people arrangement, so he goes undercover: After a friend gives him a crash course in how to act fundamentalist, Roose enrolls at Liberty, takes the standard classes, lives in the dorm, and does his best to keep the rules. By chance he winds up being one of the last people to interview Jerry Falwell.

The book is interesting both as an inside view of extreme religious Right and as a double-agent story. Roose's challenge is to keep his own sense of identity even though (1) everything he believes is under constant attack; and (2) he isn't really what he lets others believe he is. Holding Liberty's culture at arm's length would defeat the purpose of coming, and yet he doesn't want to lose himself in it, even if the Liberty does have some good points. They're never going to convince him about evolution, but he's surprised how easy it is to relax and have fun on a date when sex is not an option. And what should he do when a Liberty woman starts to like the guy he's pretending to be?

In the end, Roose completes his semester and returns to Brown -- not as a converted fundamentalist, but not unchanged either. It's an ending I've seen twice before in books where sociologists immerse themselves in religious-right cultures: Spirit and Flesh by James Ault and Straight to Jesus by Tanya Ezren. Come to think of it, it's not that different from the ending of Tootsie, or maybe even Twelfth Night. Living on the other side of the fence always changes you.

Boston University legal professor Jay Wexler came up with an interesting hook for a book about church-and-state issues: He turned it into a road trip. In Holy Hullabaloos he hits to road to tour the sites of some of the pivotal church/state cases.

Wexler writes in an engaging style and manages to get across key legal distinctions without sounding like a professor. Also, his road-trip gimmick subtly demonstrates how law differs from legislation: Law is about people. No matter how abstract or even perverse the court ruling eventually turns out to be, each case starts with some particular person having a very understandable grievance. (Wexler already had me in Chapter 1, where the road trip takes him to the Grendel's Den bar in Cambridge. I've been there and knew it had something to do with a legal case, but had never grokked the particulars.)

Along the way, Wexler's own religious and political views come through. He's a secular Jew who hated Hebrew school and has had little to do with religion since. He's also a liberal who can't stop making Justice Scalia jokes. But he spends so much of the book making fun of himself that his opinions don't seem oppressive. If you don't agree, he's just a funny guy with funny ideas. He also does a good job of letting the people he meets talk rather than talking over them.

Where does he go? To a football game at the Texas high school that had to stop having prayers at their football games. To the Creation Museum in Kentucky. To the Florida town that tried to stop the Santerians from sacrificing chickens. To the Senate Chaplain's office. To the Wisconsin town that had to let Amish kids drop out of school early. To the Hassidic community of Kiryas Joel, which eventually got to be its own school district. And a few other places. It's a wild ride -- at least for a road trip with a law professor.

Short Notes
Nate Silver wrote a very important article that I missed until other bloggers flagged it. Nate is a numbers guy (a baseball wonk, originally), and he has a knack for putting his finger on just the right statistic. Here he compiles which senators get the highest percentage of their contributions from corporate PACs.

The list is dominated by small-state senators, which Nate explains like this: Senators who represent a lot of voters can attract a lot of contributions from them, while small-state senators can raise proportionately less money from their constituents. But to a big corporation, all senators are equal. They're just as happy to buy a senator from Idaho as one from California. So while small-state senators might not get more corporate money than big-state senators, they're more dependent on that money -- and, presumably, more influenced by it.

Now look at the six senators who are negotiating the Senate's version of the healthcare bill, and where they fall on Nate's list: Enzi (#1), Grassley (6), Conrad (11), Baucus (13), Bingaman (14), and Snowe (20). In case you're wondering: The chance of randomly picking six senators and having them all fall in the top 20 is about 1 in 30,000.

While we're talking about corporate cash influencing politicians, a case soon to be argued before the Supreme Court could release a torrent of it. Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission challenges the century-old ban on corporations -- not corporate political action committees, but individual corporations -- contributing directly to political campaigns.

At the center of this case is the notion of corporate personhood -- the bizarre doctrine that corporations are essentially "persons" for legal purposes. If so, then how can we deny them the right to free speech inherent in the ability to contribute to the campaign of some one who speaks for you?

Steve Benen notes that John McCain has been on at least one of the major Sunday talk shows 11 times in the last 8 months, and then asks:
Refresh my memory: was there this much interest in John Kerry's take on current events in 2005?

Rachel Maddow has been on a roll lately. She has spelled out the details of the corporate astroturfing better than anybody. And the parable of ordering pizza (in which her sidekick Kent Jones claims to want pizza but says no to any proposed pizza order) was a great analogy for what the Senate Republicans are doing with health care.

Scott McLemee provides the kind of deep-background insight I just love: He flashes back to the 1949 book Prophets of Deceit, which analyzed the techniques of Depression-era rabble-rousers like right-wing radio personality Father Coughlin. What Scott notices is how eerily Prophets describes Glenn Beck.

More worrisome testimony that the U.S. military is turning into a fundamentalist Christian militia. The comments are worth reading too.

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