Monday, March 29, 2010

Victory Lap

Winning takes talent. To repeat takes character. -- John Wooden

In this week's Sift ... I wanted to move on from health care, but the rest of the world didn't. So this week we focus on the aftermath of a contentious struggle.
  • The Democrats: "Yes We Did!" This week we saw something we haven't seen in a long time: Democrats unapologetic about getting what they wanted. There was a lot of smiling and laughing, and a little wondering why things can't be like this more often.
  • The Republicans: Repeal and Judicial Activism. Now who's counting on unelected judges to legislate from the bench? And Phil Gramm explains the difference between liberal and conservative approaches to health care.
  • Violent Rhetoric and Violent Action. Right-wing anger took a violent turn, though not a deadly one yet. Is it too much to ask Republican leaders to just say no?
  • No Persians Need Apply. The WaPo's slimy criticism of Christiane Amanpour.
  • Short Notes. The Onion achieves universal news parody, but still can't outdo the Texas Board of Education. Scott Brown nominates Rachel Maddow to run against him. Sarah Palin seems not to know who the Founding Fathers are. How I got David Frum fired. And more.

The Democrats: "Yes We Did!"
President Obama is a basketball player, so he knows: When you break the other team's full-court press and get the ball across the half-court line, you don't just sigh in relief and wait for the defense to re-set. No, you take advantage of their gamble by going straight to the basket.

That's what he was doing in Iowa Thursday. (Highlight video here.) The heavy lifting was over and the final piece of the bill would pass Thursday evening. But he didn't let up. Instead, he started making the Republicans pay for their outrageous rhetoric and tactics:
There’s been plenty of fear-mongering, plenty of overheated rhetoric. You turn on the news, you’ll see the same folks are still shouting about there’s going to be an end of the world because this bill passed. (Laughter.) I’m not exaggerating. Leaders of the Republican Party, they called the passage of this bill “Armageddon.” (Laughter.) Armageddon. “End of freedom as we know it.”

So after I signed the bill, I looked around to see if there were any -- (laughter) -- asteroids falling or -- (applause) -- some cracks opening up in the Earth. (Laughter.) It turned out it was a nice day. (Laughter.) Birds were chirping. Folks were strolling down the Mall. People still have their doctors.
That's exactly the right tone. Don't try to trump the other side's ridiculous claims, laugh at them.

We would never have gotten this advantage if the bill hadn't passed. The Republicans could have kept up the nonsense and claimed that they deserved credit for averting Armageddon. Now they're like the preacher who promised his followers the end of the world on a date certain. The date has come and gone, and the world is still here.

The View From the Bleachers blog  and Bob Johnson on Daily Kos continue the mockery.
Will-I-Am's "Yes We Can" video gets updated with a hell-no-you-can't counterpoint from John Boehner.
What would the health-care debate had sounded like if both sides had tried to be reasonable? Probably like this conversation between Joshua Cohen and Brink Lindsey.
Sometimes a news host's ego eclipses the story. In this clip two months ago, Rep. Alan Grayson tells Chris Matthews exactly what is going to happen: The Democrats will pass a health-care bill using reconciliation in the Senate. Matthews not only doesn't believe Grayson, he berates, badgers, and attempts to humiliate him. Matthews accuses him of "pandering to the netroots" -- lying, in other words, telling people like me what we want to hear even though he knows it won't happen.

Remember, this isn't Fox News, this is the supposedly liberal network, MSNBC.

The Republicans: Repeal and Judicial Activism
Friday's Wall Street Journal gave five Republican views of where to go from here. The most interesting is from Phil Gramm, who summed up the difference between Republican and Democratic health-care policy like this:
Any real debate about health-care reform has to be centered on solving the problem of cost. Ultimately, there are only two ways of doing it. The first approach is to have government control costs through some form of rationing. The alternative is to empower families to make their own health-care decisions in a system where costs matter. The fundamental question is about who is going to do the controlling: the family or the government.
This quote is worth examining in some detail, because it really does capture the difference. Look at what's missing: First, to Gramm the problem is entirely cost; access doesn't matter. If people can't get coverage because of, say, pre-existing conditions, that's not Phil Gramm's problem. And meanwhile, during the decades-long struggle to control costs, tens of millions of Americans won't be able to afford coverage, and tens of thousands of them will die unnecessarily every year. But that's not Phil Gramm's problem either.

Now look at his cost-control choices. Both are variations on one idea: Somebody has to go without care. The only questions are who and how. Gramm thinks the who should be the people who have to scramble to meet a budget. He doesn't say that, but think it through: In his "system where costs matter" where else would savings come from?

Economizing on your health-care decisions is not like buying chicken instead of steak. It's more like buying the half-price dented can that might have botulism or eating the stuff in the refrigerator that is a little spoiled but probably still OK. Probably. It's a gamble, in other words. 

So you have a pain somewhere and your doctor says, "Probably it's nothing, but it could be cancer. We should do a test." The test turns out to be expensive. In Phil Gramm's system, if you're rich you get the test, but otherwise you have to think: "Am I going to risk it?" A lot of cash-strapped people will take the risk rather than pay for the test, and some of them will die.

That's how Republicans cut costs: People die, but it's their own decision so it's OK. They gambled and lost. Not my problem. 

That's what it means to "empower families" in "a system where costs matter": We'll push struggling families into gambling with their lives.

Here's the cost-control feature Gramm ignores: The system could be more efficient if the decision-making weren't so atomized. Think about vaccinations. A system-wide approach can wipe out a disease (like we almost did with smallpox and are trying to do with polio). That's a huge cost savings, but it takes a government mandate. 

An even better example is antibiotic-resistant hospital-bourne infections -- a huge problem that costs billions and kills about 19,000 Americans every year. Individuals and families can't do much about it -- my Dad picked up MRSA in a hospital after surgery this summer, and I don't see what we could have done differently. 

Well, there is one thing: We could have sent Dad to Norway for his surgery, because Norway (one of those "socialist" countries whose example is supposed to scare us) has MRSA pretty well whipped. They did it by cutting down the unnecessary use of antibiotics.  Fewer antibiotics in the environment means fewer chances for resistant bacteria to evolve. They don't cure MRSA any better than we do, but they prevent it.

The Dutch also control MRSA using a "search and destroy" strategy that tests everyone who enters a hospital. That, again, is a "socialist" solution: Most MRSA carriers never get sick and have no individual motivation to pay for a test, but you force tests on them anyway. It works.

Did I mention that Norwegians on average live two years longer than Americans? And that they spent $4763 per person on health care in 2007, compared to $7290 in the US? (For the Dutch it's 1.6 years and $3837.) Republican-style individual decision-making can't get you there; it just trades off cost against survival. To improve both you need a system-wide approach. You need to deal with the public health problems, not just the individual health problems.

Republican state attorney generals are filing suit to have the bill declared unconstitutional, because the Constitution does not empower the government to require people to buy private-market products like health insurance. There's really no precedent for such a ruling, but Republicans must be hoping that the conservative judicial activists on the Supreme Court will ignore precedent and rule based on their ideology, as they did in the Citizens United case or Bush v Gore.

As far as constitutionality and the Founders' intent goes, Joe Conason points out that George Washington signed a bill with an individual mandate. The Militia Act of 1792 requires each able-bodied male of military age to 
provide himself with a good musket or firelock, a sufficient bayonet and belt, two spare flints, and a knapsack, a pouch with a box therein to contain not less than twenty-four cartridges ...

The overall Republican narrative is that Obama is an extreme left-winger: socialist or even Marxist or totalitarian -- like Stalin or Hitler

Health care has to be shoe-horned into that narrative, because Obamacare is almost entirely built from ideas that Republicans had back in the days when Republicans were sane. Senators old enough to have supported the 1993 Heritage Foundation plan -- Orrin Hatch, Chuck Grassley and others -- have been spinning wildly to explain why they now think that their old proposal is unconstitutional. Their defense seems to be that nobody worried about the Constitution back in 1993, when dinosaurs roamed the Earth. Grassley told MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell: "I don't think anybody gave it much thought until three or four months ago."

Mitt Romney has the even-harder problem of explaining why his 2006 Massachusetts health plan was good, but the Obama plan (basically just a bigger version of the same thing) is horrible. The difference he points to: His plan was bipartisan. Matt Yglesias responds: Obama's plan would have been bipartisan too if people like Romney had supported it.

I'll just tell you this, if this [health-care bill] passes and it's five years from now and all that stuff gets implemented, I am leaving the country. I'll go to Costa Rica.
Buh-bye Rush. Send us a card. BTW: Costa Rica is a good choice. They have universal health care and they let foreigners buy in cheaply. They also have no armed forces, so you never have to worry about some crazy president starting a war for no reason. You'll love it.
The Congressman who shouted "baby killer" at Bart Stupak has been identified: Republican Randy Neugebauer of Texas. He has apologized to Stupak, but is also raising money based on his outburst.

Violent Rhetoric and Violent Action
Another reason to respond with humor rather than anger is that the anger is already out of hand.

Passage of health-care reform sparked a wave of vandalism against Democrats in Congress: broken windows at several congressional offices, and (a little bit more scary) a cut gas line at a house that right-wingers thought belonged to a Democratic Congressman but actually belonged to his brother. One Missouri Democrat found a coffin outside his home.

Rachel Maddow led with this story two nights in a row. Only in retrospect will we know whether that was prescient or an over-reaction. If this spirals up to an Oklahoma City bombing or a JFK assassination, it was prescient. If occasional vandalism is the extent of it, Rachel (and a few other people on the Left) over-reacted.

Here's what is beyond dispute: 
  • Conservatives like to use violent metaphors in their rhetoric. So Sarah Palin talks about "reloading" and puts up a map with "targeted" congressional districts in crosshairs. (Even the View's Elizabeth Hasselbeck -- inexplicably left off my list of blonde conservative female pundits last week -- described this as "despicable".) Democrats also use fighting metaphors, but usually stay away from more graphic ones involving weapons or military tactics.
  • In this era, right-wing crazies are more violent than left-wing crazies. That hasn't always been true, but it has for a few decades now. If there are left-wing militias groups training for revolution, I haven't seen them. Lefties don't shoot people in churches (not just here, but here), and we aren't making heroes of the people who do. We haven't dive-bombed offices we don't like or shot up museums lately.

What's at issue is the connection between metaphoric violence and physical violence. A recent NYT article minimized the relationship. While admitting the possibility of riling up an occasional "lone wolf", Benedict Carey says:
the psychological distance between talk and action — between fantasizing about even so much as brick heaving and actually doing it — is far larger for a typical, peaceable citizen than many assume. 
Still, Republican leaders haven't just just pooh-poohed the connection, they've leaned towards justifying the violence. Iowa Rep. Steve King, for example, responded to the IRS kamikaze by repeating his criticisms of the IRS. And Scott Brown said, "No one likes paying taxes." John Boehner did say that violence was "unacceptable", but only after sympathizing with the motives of those who threaten:
I know many Americans are angry over this health care bill, and that Washington Democrats just aren't listening
Eric Cantor tried to turn the attack around: He accused Democrats of "fanning the flames" by complaining about the threats against them. And he claimed (falsely, as it turned out, reminding some bloggers of Ashley Todd) that his offices had been targeted too. Democrats offered a vanilla bipartisan civility agreement, which Republican leaders refused to sign.

Digby nails this behavior: It's a wife-beater mindset. Democrats have been "asking for it" by daring to vote for something they believe in and carrying out the platform they ran on. 

It's hard not to connect violence with beliefs that would justify a violent response. Several people have asked me about the Harris online poll with bizarre results. 41% of the Republicans answering the poll say they believe Obama "wants to use an economic collapse or terrorist attack as an excuse to take dictatorial powers." 24% even agree that "He may be the Anti-Christ." I take this with a grain of salt because, as Newsweek points out, the poll design was virtually guaranteed to exaggerate agreement.

No Persians Need Apply
ABC announced that veteran CNN international reporter Christiane Amanpour will be the new host of its Sunday-morning show "This Week", starting in August. She replaces George Stephanopoulos, who has moved on to "Good Morning America".

What makes a good anchor for an interview-and-commentary show is highly subjective, so it's not surprising that people have many reactions to this announcement. But the column WaPo's TV critic Tom Shales wrote has some ugly undercurrents that Glenn Greenwald noticed and brought to the surface. Shales first observes:
Supporters of Israel have more than once charged Amanpour with bias against that country and its policies.
Fair enough, though supporters of anything have a tendency to see accurate reporting as bias against them. But then the next paragraph begins:
Amanpour grew up in Great Britain and Iran. Her family fled Tehran in 1979 at the start of the Islamic revolution, when she was college age. She has steadfastly rejected claims about her objectivity
To understand why Glenn calls this "slimy", flip it around. The job's other major candidate was Jake Tapper. How slimy would it be to raise unsubstantiated questions about a pro-Israel bias and then immediately mention Trapper's ethnic background (Jewish)? 

If somebody wants to argue that Amanpour is anti-Israel, fine: Cite examples. Give evidence. But in America a reporter's ethnicity is not evidence of bias.

Short Notes
The Onion parodies every cable-news story simultaneously in Breaking News: Some Bullshit is Happening Somewhere

It  also demonstrates how hard parodying the Right is these days. Their list of changes to the Texas textbooks doesn't sound any crazier than the real ones. Extra credit question: Is this from the Onion or the real Texas standards?
A recommendation to include country and western music among the nation’s important cultural movements. The popular black genre of hip-hop is being dropped from the same list.

New Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown has been trying to raise funds based on the false rumor that MSNBC host Rachel Maddow (who lives in Massachusetts) is going to run against him -- a rumor he never bothered to check out by calling her. Since her on-air denial, he has not backed off, telling a talk-radio host "Bring her on." (To which Rachel says: "Bring what on?") He also hasn't returned her calls or responded to her invitation to come on her show. Rachel responds:
I guess Scott Brown is going to be one of the politicians who makes stuff up to raise money instead of dealing with real issues.

Since my father-in-law went to a nursing home, my wife has been getting his mail. So I have read Sarah Palin's latest fund-raising letter. It's strikingly vacuous, even for her: She favors "the ideals of our Founding Fathers" but doesn't say what any of them are. She's against "Liberal politicians ... trying to re-write the U.S. Constitution" but doesn't say what part is being rewritten or by whom. She's also against "politicians who want to take away our basic rights" ... whatever they are.

I'm reminded of an Onion article I've linked to before: Area Man Passionate Defender of What He Imagines Constitution To Be.

The letter gets a little confusing when Sarah endorses "a return to the values our Founding Fathers fought and died for" since the Founders are usually considered to be the people who survived the Revolution long enough to write the Constitution or otherwise participate in the early days of the Republic. (As far as I know, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Ben Franklin all died in their beds.) But my confusion comes from over-thinking. This is just evolution at work: Pieces of one buzz-phrase mate with another to produce something new.

Gee, it's like conservatives read the Sift or something. Last week I pointed to David Frum as a conservative who was making sense. Thursday he lost his job as a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. (Most complete coverage here.)

Best Frum quote: "Republicans originally thought Fox News worked for us, and now we are discovering we work for Fox."
It's 90 minutes long -- an hour of talk and a half-hour of questions -- so don't get started if you don't have some time, but Rick Perlstein's talk at Vanderbilt last Monday is very insightful and interesting. Perlstein is a historian (author of Nixonland), and he's describing his historical model of how transformational presidents -- FDR, Reagan -- did it. He doesn't think Obama is following that path.
The contrast between today's tea-party Republicans and Republicans from not-so-long-ago came out Saturday on Mike Huckabee's show. Huckabee was trying to get James Baker, Chief of Staff and Secretary of State in the original Bush administration, to condemn Obama's handling of the Israeli settlement issue. Baker refused to run with the Israel-is-always-right ball, and instead gave Huckabee a history lesson.
Another long-term price of the second Bush administration's follies: British lawmakers want to end the "special relationship" that has let the U.S. call the shots in Britain's foreign policy.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

> ...the contrast between today's
> tea-party Republicans and
> Republicans from not-so-long-ago

I'm 58. When I was a kid, I remember my parents proudly taught me, "The R in Republican stands for Responsible."

Different era indeed.

--Alan MacRobert