Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Health Care Summit

Some of my initial reactions...
  • Overall, the summit was a good thing for Democrats and for the prospect of passing health care reform. I'll take a big televised exchange between Obama and Republican leaders any day. I think he's just better at this than they are. It also doesn't hurt that his position on health care is more just and easier to defend than John Boehner's. But it's not just that he's got skillz. In general, wonk-ish debates are good for Democrats, and it's especially true of the current health care debate. The Republican strategy to sink the bill and give Obama "his Waterloo" relies a lot on spreading fear and confusion among the public. But it's hard to spread fear and confusion when you're sitting right there with the Democrats and they can refute your points on camera.
  • Could you imagine George W. Bush hosting a summit like this? Same thing with the recent "President's Question Time." It's good to see that Obama has absolutely no fear of going toe-to-toe with his biggest opponents on live TV. We knew he's smart. But he's also comfortable and confident. He's the guy you want on the label of whatever you're selling. (Again, it doesn't hurt that what we're "selling" would bring medical coverage to 36 million people who lack it and save money in doing so.) Republicans are right to criticize Obama for promising to put the bill's crafting on C-SPAN and then not doing so. But his Q&A session with the Republican Caucus plus todays 7-hour-plus summit is an unprecedented and welcome level of transparency.
  • I hope that after today some moderate Republicans will soften their opposition to meaningful reform. And I hope that Democrats will stop waiting around for that and pass the reconciliation bill already. The president made it clear today that reconciliation (majority vote) is the way ahead for merging the Senate and House bills. Seriously, what are we still waiting for?
  • Why do Republicans keep saying the United States has the best health care system in the world? We cover way fewer people, pay a lot more for it, and die at a younger age on average than people in many other developed countries. Besides we're talking about health insurance, not medical research and top of the line brain surgeons. I would guess that for the latter America has the best in the world. But we're talking about distribution and, if we're lucky, redistribution--you know, that word that Joe the Plumber was so afraid of during the campaign.
What do you think? Should similar summits be held for other issues in the near future?

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Well That Didn't Take Long

As predicted, Senator Scott "Treasure Trail" Brown broke with his party early to help Democrats pass an important bill.

So begins his seesaw ride. He's shown he's not afraid to buck the right wing, but now he has to win back the conservative activists who elected him. And then he'll have to vote like a Democrat again when he remembers he's from Massachusetts. And then back. And forth. And up. And down.

I still think he's toast in 2012.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Why I Am Optimistic About Health Care

There have been some extreme ups and downs in the push for health care reform over the last year. But right now we are up, and they are down. By "we," I mean those of us who want to see affordable medical coverage extended to every American. By "they," I mean those for whom health care is, at best, the fourth concern after scoring partisan political points, protecting the privileges of health insurance companies, and winning an ideological battle against "big government" and socialism.

We are in as strong a position as ever on health care precisely because there is a growing movement of Democratic Senators saying they'd rather pass a good bill than a "bipartisan" bill. In other words, they want to use a simple majority vote--instead of a supermajority vote--to push the health care bill over the finish line. It sounds like a boring procedural point, but it changes everything. If the Senate really does use reconciliation, then they don't have to water down the bill (i.e., deny health care to millions of Americans) just to win a Republican vote or two for passage. Shoot, they don't even have to pander to conservative Democrats by offering more favors to insurance companies. No, they can pass the most liberal bill their liberal hearts can dream, as long as it can win 50 Democratic votes plus Biden to break the tie. The House leadership has been on board with this strategy for some time, the Senate leadership has just come around, and the typical silence from the White House signals a green light from the president.

So if we only need 50 Democratic Senate votes, let's take out all the compromises we put in to win Republican votes in the first place. And let's absofreakinlutely put the public option back in. In fact, let's allow every American a buy-in to Medicare--ya know, that hugely popular single-payer government provider. Obama's health care blueprint, released ahead of the upcoming bipartisan summit, does not include even a measly public option. That, like the summit itself, ought not matter at all. The ball is in the Senate's court. Everything comes down to a couple dozen Democratic Senators who are still testing the political winds before declaring their support for the reconciliation strategy. It's up to us to help them make up their minds. And by "us," I mean anyone who's still reading.

The president is still spending time trying to find compromise between an entrenched right-wing and our basic needs as a society. Luckily, members of his own party are realizing that you can't negotiate with everyone. Sometimes you just have to win.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Perfect Valentine's Day: Stalking Senators!

My wife and I were driving around Capitol Hill today, killing time between brunch and a matinee we were going to see later. I noticed the pickup truck in front of us had Massachusetts state senate tags and several Scott Brown bumper stickers. Hmm, probably pretty good odds that's the newest senator himself, I thought. Then I caught a glimpse of some smokin' hotness in his mirror and, sure enough, it was Senator Scott Brown.

I joked that I should pull up beside him at a stop sign and offer some advice. Kate didn't laugh (probably because she thought I really would). I was thinking something like...
"Hi, welcome to Washington! Please don't deny health coverage to millions of Americans."
"Senator, just remember to ask yourself each day, 'How many people will die as a result of this filibuster?'"
You know, casual stuff. I just wanted to welcome him to the neighborhood! Alas, he turned down a side street and we drove on to our movie.

But it got me thinking of Scott Brown's political future. He's up for re-election in 2012, in a presidential election cycle, when races tend to be nationalized. He could realistically be on a Republican party ticket headed by Sarah Palin, running against President Obama and a better Senate candidate than Martha Coakley. And remember this is Massachusetts, which gave 62% of its vote to Obama in 2008 and is the third most Democratic state by party identification.

The question is this: What is Scott Brown going to do between now and November 2012 to get a significant number of Massachusetts Democrats to vote for him in what is bound to be a highly partisan election?
  • He might make a few significant breaks with his own party on high profile issues. I think he'll need some bill(s) to point at to show Massachusetts voters that he's not the typical national Republican. Shoot, at this point any position other than "filibuster everything" would be a significant break with his party.
  • Or maybe he thinks, like his own party, that it's best not to get get pinned down actually supporting anything, so he'll just lay back, avoid making waves, and hope his fresh-face image and endorsements from Red Sox players can win again in 2012.
I just don't think the second option is going to be possible. Again: Massachusetts, a blood-sport election cycle, presumably a better Democratic opponent. I think he's going to have to either cast himself as a moderate by actually working with Democrats or else start shopping his name around as a VP candidate. Because, yeah he won in 2010 when the Republican-led congressional gridlock successfully directed the public's frustration toward Democrats. But that tactic is less likely to work in 2012 when Republicans will have to be proposing things, supporting things, and running on a record of something other than, "We prevented government from acting!"

Happy belated Valentine's Day, everyone.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Counting The Cost Of Unemployment

Wow. If you're up for a really sobering contemplation of how high unemployment levels are going to reshape the country in the years ahead, look no further than Don Peck's article in The Atlantic. Before the Great Recession, 5 percent unemployment was normal. We're now at about 10 percent unemployment. And according to Peck and those he interviews, over the next several years the numbers may only improve slightly, so that even when "recovery" is complete, the new normal may be 8 or 9 percent.

The point of Peck's article is to look at the steep social and cultural costs of high unemployment, which include higher divorce rates and more single parent homes, more depression and mental illness, increased domestic violence, and more drug and alcohol abuse, to name a few. The article glances at enough facets of the issue that it really could be expanded into a graduate level course. He focuses particularly on the psychological effect that joblessness has on men and the ripple effects that sends through families, neighborhoods, and communities. (It's especially pertinent because the current recession is throwing more men out of work than women, as part of the general shift of the economy away from the manufacturing sector to the service sector, which employes relatively more women.)

One of the sections I find most interesting is where he compares the current situation to the flight of manufacturing jobs from inner cities in the 1970s. As a result, unemployment for urban black males skyrocketed in the '70s and '80s, and with that came a whole slew of social problems to inner cities. Is that a preview of what's coming this decade to what have been stable working-class communities? Peck says, "It remains to be seen whether large swaths of the country, as male joblessness persists, will eventually come to resemble the inner cities of the 1970s and '80s."

I think I'm still digesting the article. And I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on it. But I have to say that my initial reaction was that Peck's article does two things:
1) It demonstrates the human--rather than merely the economic--toll of persistent unemployment.
2) And it makes one of the best arguments I've heard for a robust public works program and a radical (in its simplicity) full employment policy.
A previous generation of progressives understood the value of of work not just for the size of our economy but for the character of our nation and its people. Franklin Roosevelt thought that having a job was a basic human right. What happened to that idea? Why not guarantee a job for anyone and everyone who is able and willing to work? We know how to do this. We've been flirting with the idea for about 70 years. Let's make the federal government the employer of last resort. If you can't find a job anywhere else, you ought to be able to contact the modern version of the Works Progress Administration and go to work laying new high-speed commuter rail line or building solar and wind farms. You ought to be able to contact the modern version of the Civilian Conservation Corps and get a job restoring wetlands or planting trees. A new National Teachers Corps ought to retrain people to become teachers in poverty-stricken and overcrowded schools. You get the idea. You wouldn't get rich in any of these jobs (that's what the private sector is for), but you'd make a living wage in a respectable and dignified job making the country a better place.

There would be a serious cost associated with creating work for the millions of Americans who want jobs. But after reading Don Peck's article, I'm even more convinced that it's less than the cost of having millions of Americans unable to find work at all.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

How To Insert Hyperlinks In Blogger Comments

I'm posting this because I always have to go searching for how to do this. Now it'll be right here on my own blog where I'll have no excuse for losing it. I think linking is tidier than pasting a whole URL. If you're as uneducated on HTML as I am, I hope you find this useful.

The template:


For example:

a href="">an awesome blog

Now put < at the beginning and <*slash*a> at the end of that code and insert the whole thing where it belongs in a sentence. And by *slash* in this case I mean the actual /

So the result would like this:

Condi, come quick! I found an awesome blog that's shattered all that I once held as true!

Monday, February 8, 2010

Is Everyone Freaking Out?

Well, I returned from a business trip back to DC just in time to get snowed in. Here's a picture of our car yesterday morning. The left front tire is discernible after some digging, but the rest of the car is under about two and a half feet of snow.
It's been interesting watching the city freak out over this snowstorm. The grocery stores in our part of town were absolutely ransacked the two days before the storm. Empty shelves, hour-long lines. People were stocking up like they'd be trapped in their homes for a month. The day after the storm, people who were out and about (including my wife and I) tended to walk in the middle of the streets, since the streets were in better condition than the sidewalks. It gave everything a kind of apocalyptic feel. Everybody would go scrambling when the occasional snow plow came roaring through. And when I wrapped plastic bags around my socks to trudge through the snow in my tennis shoes, it felt even more like a scene from The Road.

Speaking of freak outs, have Democratic leaders decided to just give up on health care after the loss in Massachusetts? I mean, the path forward on health care is clear:
1) The Senate passes a "fix" to its original health care bill using the reconciliation process (otherwise House progressives won't support the Senate's watered down bill),
2) The House passes the Senate's original bill plus the fix bill,
3) President Obama signs the main bill and the "fix" bill into law,
4) Everyone celebrates.

And remember, reconciliation only requires 50 Democratic Senators plus Biden. Who cares about Scott Brown? Who cares about Joe Lieberman? So...what are we waiting for?

Of course no Democratic leader is saying they're giving up. They're just delaying, delaying, delaying. But at some point, you have to ask yourself, What would an epic failure on health care reform look like? I think it would look like a series of delays that goes on and on until all the steam is gone from the activist base pushing reform. Yes, we may be witnessing the Democratic leadership trying to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory again.

It doesn't have to be this way. Obama, Pelosi, and Reid need to take a deep breath, stop listening to the media's narrative about the collapse of the Obama presidency, and ram health care through.

I'd like to close with an open letter...
Dear Democratic Leaders,

Congressional Republicans don't want you to compromise or listen to their "ideas." They want you to dither and fret until the public blames all of its problems on the incumbent party who has nothing to show for its time in office. Stop freaking out over the fact that your huge majority in the Senate is now one seat smaller. Stop freaking out over your declining poll numbers. What did you expect? The public is looking for some of the change they voted for. Deliver some. Start with health care.