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Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Editor’s Corner

Can Co-Ops Be a Public Option?

This item by J.P. Green was originally published on August 18, 2009.
Sorting out the pros and cons of the co-op option vs. the public option is the challenge of the hour for progressives who want real health care reform, and it will certainly be hotly debated. Most just-published articles and blogs equate ‘public option’ with a government plan. But it seems important to ask, is there any way that a co-op can be a public option? There is no shortage of opinions on the topic:
The New York Times has “Alternate Plan as Health Option Muddies Debate,” a probing article by by Robert Pear and Gardiner Harris. The authors spotlight some key problems with the co-op approach:

As the debate rages, lawmakers are learning that creating cooperatives — loosely defined as private, nonprofit, consumer-owned providers of health care, much like the co-ops that offer telephone, electric and other utility service in rural areas — will not be easy.
The history of health insurance in the United States is full of largely unsuccessful efforts to introduce new models of insurance that would lower costs. And the health insurance markets of many states suggest that any new entrant would face many difficulties in getting established.

More specifically:

The government would offer start-up money, perhaps $6 billion, in loans and grants to help doctors, hospitals, businesses and other groups form nonprofit cooperative networks to provide health care and coverage.
The co-ops could be formed at the national, state or local level. Proponents say that a health co-op might need 25,000 members to be financially viable, and at least 500,000 members to negotiate effectively with health care providers…they would need time to buy sophisticated information technology and to negotiate contracts with doctors, hospitals and other health care providers.
…In the 1990s, Iowa adopted a law to encourage the development of health care co-ops. One was created, and it died within two years. Although the law is still on the books, the state does not have a co-op now, said Susan E. Voss, the Iowa insurance commissioner.

Not a very promising prospect, according to ‘the newspaper of record.’ Worse, $6 billion is about what we spend occupying Iraq in one month. Iraq and Afghanistan are the ignored elephants in rooms where health care reform is being debated. Few would doubt that half of what we spend on these two wars annually could go a long way toward bringing real health security to America.
Columnist Bob Herbert is even more dismissive in his NYT op-ed, “Forget about the nonprofit cooperatives. That’s like sending peewee footballers up against the Super Bowl champs.”
In his Alternet post “It’s Now or Never for a Public Option: Why We Need to Take a Stand Against the Insurance Industry’s Greed” Joshua Holland explains,

In 2000, the Government Accountability Office conducted a study of the impact similar purchasing schemes had had to date. “Despite efforts to negotiate lower premiums,” the GAO concluded, “cooperatives have only been able to offer premiums that are comparable to those in the general small-group market. The cooperatives we reviewed typically did not obtain overall premium reductions because: 1) their market share provided insufficient leverage; 2) they could not produce administrative savings for insurers.”
The Commonwealth Fund did an analysis of the impacts nonprofit co-ops would have as well (PDF), and its findings were similar. Researchers found that, “with very few exceptions,” premiums offered through co-ops “have not been lower than those available to small employers elsewhere” because they “have not been able to reduce administrative costs … they have not had enough market share to bargain for discounts.”
Because of their inherent limitations, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean told me in an interview last month that the co-op scheme is a “fake public option,” and “really not [a] serious health reform.” He predicted that if they were created, they would “be crushed just like Blue Cross was crushed. Most Blue Cross chapters are now for-profit. They’ve been taken over by the insurance industry. Any reasonable-sized insurance company can crush a not-for-profit co-op.”

And, in The Nation, Katha Pollit writes of co-ops,

…They’re untested, small, unregulated, that they exist in twenty states and that Senator Kent Conrad of North Dakota really likes them–but I didn’t discover what they actually are. I understand “public option,” and “public” has a good, strong ring to it–it says, Healthcare is a right, part of the common good, something everyone should have, and if you can’t afford it in the marketplace, the government will provide it. “Insurance co-op” speaks a whole other language, of commerce and complexity and exclusivity

Writing in the Washington Post, David S. Hilzenrath and Alec MacGillis explain:

“It’s very difficult to start up a new insurance company and break into markets where insurers are very established,” said Paul B. Ginsburg, president of the Center for Studying Health System Change. “I don’t see how they’re going to obtain a large enough market share . . . to make a difference.”
Karen Davis, president of the Commonwealth Fund, a foundation focused on health care and social policy research, said co-ops may not enroll enough people to negotiate favorable rates with health-care providers.
…Co-ops would lack perhaps the main advantage of the public option: reimbursement rates for doctors and hospitals set by federal law, like those paid by Medicare, the program for older Americans. Federally determined reimbursement rates were central to the cost-saving promise of a government-run health plan and a potentially powerful competitive advantage. They were also a lightning rod for intense opposition from health-care providers and private insurers, who denounced the public option as a threat to their financial survival…Co-ops would lack the ability to piggyback onto existing government institutions, like the ones that help administer Medicare.

On the other hand, Co-ops have some advantages and “could serve a useful purpose in health care — just as credit unions compete effectively with banks, prompting them to offer higher interest rates on deposits and lower rates on loans,” explain Pear and Harris, summarizing the views of Ann Hoyt, a University of Wisconsin economist who has written extensively about co-ops.

…Professor Hoyt said she had been a member of the Group Health Cooperative of South Central Wisconsin since 1985, and she reported that “the care is excellent.”…Larry J. Zanoni, executive director of the Wisconsin plan, said: “We are a testament to the success of a health care cooperative. But it took us over 30 years to get where we are today.”

Right Beneath the Surface

This item by Ed Kilgore was cross-posted from The New Republic. It was originally published on August 12, 2009.
The conservative attacks on health care reform and Barack Obama’s economic plan seem to have reached a fever pitch this week. Their obsession with the topics has been matched only by the inanity of most of their critiques. Why are the conservative talking points on these issues grounded in such weak arguments? Is there something else at play here?
This reaction seemed strangely familiar as I read Matthew Yglesias’s recent post about the Christian Right’s obsession with gay marriage. As a matter of course, your average Christian Right crusader against gay marriage acts as though the issue vitally affects non-gay people: It cheapens “real” marriage and threatens the “traditional family,” they argue. Others claim that it enshrines relativistic morals and violates the religious rights of Christians. What unites most of these arguments is that they claim not to be about denying gay people their rights, but protecting non-gay people.
None of these arguments are particularly strong. And not coincidentally, if you spend much time around regular conservative folk (rather than pundits or spokesmen) who oppose gay marriage, they won’t be making them. Rather, you hear various forms of personal and Biblical condemnation of homosexuality, usually combined with outrage that these people demand legal protection for their unsavory behavior. You don’t hear this in public in part because dehumanizing gay people isn’t as generally acceptable as it used to be. But it’s still there, under the surface, and may be one of the reasons why critics of gay marriage keep fighting against gay marriage despite the ludicrous nature of their public arguments.
This may actually help explain many of the absurd conservative attacks on Obama’s economic and health care agenda. We’re painfully accustomed to hearing that Obama is herding Americans into socialism, is destroying the private-sector economy, and is determined to create a health care system that combines the bureaucracy of Great Britain with the ethics of Nazi Germany. Do the people repeating and encouraging this sort of talk really believe it?
Maybe, but there may also be something a little more direct going on in the conservative psychology. There was an interesting vignette at one of the infamous town hall meetings last week in which a disabled woman on crutches who had lost her health insurance was accosted by another woman who shouted, “I shouldn’t have to pay for your health care!” amidst jeering applause from other health reform opponents. That was no more than a crude expression of what some conservative elite spokesmen have explicitly said, such as ABC’s John Stossel, who describes Obama’s plan as “a form of expensive, taxpayer-funded welfare.”
If this sounds vaguely familiar, it echoes what we heard repeatedly among angry grassroots conservatives during the 2008 campaign, particularly after the financial collapse: Irresponsible people (many of whom happen to be minorities) have wrecked the economy by taking out mortgages they couldn’t afford, and were subsequently trying to elect Obama to get themselves more welfare at the expense of good, productive people who didn’t live beyond their means. Indeed, long after welfare reform supposedly took this conservative wedge issue off the table, anger about “welfare”–as applied to mortgage relief, progressive taxes, and now health reform–has made quite a comeback. One of the most potent things about the 1980s-vintage attacks on “welfare” was that they endowed some pretty ugly emotions with self-righteousness, and even a sense of victimization, for people who felt they were being punished for being productive. It seems clear that many of Obama’s right-wing critics are motivated as much by moral judgments about the beneficiaries of his polices as by their alleged impact on the economy or the health care system.
But in the same way that it’s no longer acceptable to publicly hate on gay people, it is not terribly respectable to publicly hate the poor, to consider minorities inherently inferior, or to express indifference towards the sufferings of fellow citizens. And so instead of the woman screaming “Why should I pay for your health care?” we get a host of specious public-spirited arguments about the destruction that health care reform will inflict on us all, be they elderly Medicare beneficiaries or the middle-class mother of a disabled child.
Conservatives are hardly unique in reacting selfishly or self-righteously to political issues, or dressing up personal prejudices with public policy arguments; we all do that from time to time, and to one extent or another. But whether we are talking about gay marriage, government-backed mortgages, or health care reform, there may well be a strongly dynamic relationship right now between privately held feelings of strong disdain for the purported beneficiaries of Obama’s agenda, and some of the wilder arguments being made publicly to attack it.

A simple suggestion for how to handle the Town Meetings on Health Care

This item by James Vega was originally published on August 5, 2009.
Let the sick, the weak and the destitute be the first to arrive:
Let America see them enter the meeting hall
Walking on crutches
Rolling wheelchairs
Leaning on canes
Pushing walkers
Holding IV bottles
Carrying tanks of oxygen
Let the sick, the weak and the destitute be the first to arrive:
Let America see them
Holding high in the air medical bills they cannot afford to pay
Holding high insurance claims that were denied
Holding high pictures of family members who died…without insurance, and without decent care
Let the sick, the weak and the destitute be the first to arrive:
Let America see them.
Ask for the right to sit in the front …because the issue is ultimately about them.
Ask for the right to speak….without catcalls, booing or interruption.
Ask to be shown the respect and dignity they deserve ….but have been denied.
Ask if they need to shout to make their voices heard…. or if America is ready to listen.
Let the sick, the weak and the destitute be the first to arrive at the meetings on health care
Let America see them…..and then decide what kind of country America is and what kind of country it wants to be.

Kill Health Reform, Save Granny, and Stop the Nazis

This item by Ed Kilgore was originally published at The New Republic on August 4, 2009
One of the abiding frustrations attending the campaign for health care reform is that the complexity of the subject enables opponents to, as Sarah Palin might put it, “make things up.” Pro-reform folk have to work overtime to swat down claims that range from the deeply exaggerated to the completely fabricated, only to see their arguments treated as equivalent to conservative howlers in “he said, she said” media coverage. (Harold Pollack tears apart a few particularly egregious provocateurs over at The Treatment today.)
My own personal favorite howler, based on an usually high ratio of drama to fact, is the “kill granny” meme, whereby health reform is alleged to be aimed at saving money by hurrying seniors to the graveyard. And as it happens, Pat Buchanan’s latest syndicated column offers a classicly twisted presentation of this claim, showing that the old demagogue has not lost a step in his ability to defy logic in pursuit of his political aims.
After announcing that “Obamacare” depends on reduction of end-of-life care costs, Buchanan suddenly takes us to the United Kingdom, where a government agency has issued guidelines opposing the routine prescription of steroids for chronic pain. Then we’re back in the USA:

Now, twin this story with the weekend Washington Post story about Obamacare’s “proposal to pay physicians who counsel elderly or terminally ill patients about what medical treatment they would prefer near the end of life and how to prepare instructions such as living wills,” and there is little doubt as to what is coming.

Having conflated British and American policies, and identified counseling designed to let seniors control their own care with a government restriction on a particular pain medication, Buchanan suddenly starts talking about an assisted suicide in Switzerland, notes that some people in America support that, too, and then gets to his real argument:

Beneath this controversy lie conflicting concepts about life.
To traditional Christians, God is the author of life and innocent life, be it of the unborn or terminally ill, may not be taken. Heroic means to keep the dying alive are not necessary, but to advance a natural death by assisting a suicide or euthanasia is a violation of the God’s commandment, Thou shalt not kill.
To secularists and atheists who believe life begins and ends here, however, the woman alone decides whether her unborn child lives, and the terminally ill and elderly, and those closest to them, have the final say as to when their lives shall end.

Note that the only “concepts about life” that Buchanan mentions are those of “traditional Christians” and “secularists and atheists.” Thus excluded from the debate are 40 million or so mainline American Protestants, 20 to 30 million “non-traditional” American Catholics (i.e., those who support abortion rights), and of course, Jews, Muslims and all sorts of other people who aren’t remotely “secularists and atheists.” Unbelievers are in turn stereotyped without evidence as holding a casual attitude towards human life, instead of, perhaps, a serious commitment to the rights of human beings who happen to be women or people near death.
But this doesn’t end Buchanan’s vast smear. Next he flies us back in space and time to early-twentieth-century Germany, where a treatise on assisted suicide by two professors in the Weimar era (you know, that decadent “liberal” period) is assumed to have led directly to Nazi Germany’s euthanasia policies. (Pat doesn’t mention that the Nazis were big opponents of abortion, at least for Aryans.)
So in one short column, Buchanan manages to associate “Obamacare” with the intentional infliction of pain on seniors to encourage them to commit suicide, as part of an anti-Christian and proto-Nazi drive to destroy “the sanctity of life.”
I’m not saying that opponents of health care reform generally embrace Buchanan’s ravings, but let’s face it: The man has enormous exposure via his column and his MSNBC appearances. And he merely adds a particular shrill voice to the chorus urging Americans that this complicated idea of health care reform is too risky to undertake. Why open the door to even a small chance of a Fourth Reich in America, via government-sponsored assisted suicide? It’s better to trust the devil we know.

A quick lesson: how to misinterpret a poll to prove that Democrats are as nutty as Republicans

This item by James Vega was originally published on August 3, 2009.
A David Paul Kuhn column over at RealClearPolitics offers the thesis – stated in his title – that not just Republicans, but “Both Parties have their Fanatics.” While recognizing that substantial numbers of Republicans indeed believe against all evidence that Obama was not born in the U.S. , Kuhn argues that Democrats are equally –and in fact even more — delusional than the Republicans because a spring 2007 Rasmussen poll showed that 35% of Dems believed that “George W. Bush had advance knowledge of the 9/11 attacks.”
On this basis Kuhn unleashes a veritable fountain of pejorative adjectives, even dusting off Richard Hofstadter to promote his “Dems are even more nutty and fanatical than Republicans” equivalency thesis.
He says:

“The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” was title of historian Richard Hofstadter’s famous Sixties essay. “I call it the paranoid style,” [Hofstadter] wrote, because “no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy.”

Kuhn continues:

Most conspiracy theorists’ fidelity is to theory, not truth. They tend to uphold a belief despite the facts. The possible, however improbable, trumps the logical. And it’s futile to attempt to disprove their belief. It’s like debating with those who believe the world is flat.

Having thus set the stage with these hefty portions of hyperbole and Hofstadter, Kuhn then says the following:

The disparate treatment of the two conspiracy theories is unmistakable. More Democrats fell into the “truther” camp than Republicans fall into the “birther” camp. But the mainstream media has covered the “birther” poll far more vigorously. It’s easy to understand, unless one is invested in the opposing camp, why these incongruities irk the political right.

Wow. Take that, you damn Democratic nutcakes. Democrats are not only nuttier than Republicans, but the liberal media, as usual, is giving them a free pass.
This is dramatic, to be sure, but unfortunately there’s a huge and basic fallacy in the argument.

What Makes Dogs Blue?

This item by Ed Kilgore was originally published at The New Republic on July 29, 2009.
While Jon Chait is definitely right that much of the difficulty with House Blue Dog Democrats on health reform (like climate change) has had to do with the legislative timing, there is still a residual question about their generally reluctant position with respect to much of the Obama agenda. And the oversimplistic answer to this oversimplistic question has often been that Blue Dogs tend to represent marginal districts they could lose by toeing the party line.
So now comes the ever-insightful Mike Tomasky with an analysis of exactly how vulnerable those Blue Dogs really are. He keeps this analysis clean by limiting himself to those Members from districts carried last year by John McCain—i.e., those where fears of a voter backlash are most reasonable. And his conclusion is that the vast majority of Blue Dogs seem to have little to worry about based on their 2008 performance.
His conclusion:

Yes, some Democrats have to be very careful and not be seen as casting a liberal vote. But they’re a comparatively small number. A very clear majority of these people have won by large enough margins that it sure seems to me they could survive one controversial vote if they [put] some backbone into it.
But many of these folks manage to sell this story line to Washington reporters who’ve never been to these exurban and rural districts and can be made to believe the worst caricatures. I say many of these Democrats are safer than they contend. People need to start challenging them on this.

Mike’s post is very valuable in dealing with broad-brush stereotypes of the Blue Dogs and of Democratic “centrists” generally. He doesn’t, of course, deal with alternative explanations, including the diametrically opposed possibilities that they believe what they say they believe on policy issues as a matter of principle, or that they are deeply beholden to interests (whether home-grown or national) who oppose Obama’s agenda.
But let’s stick with electoral calculations. Mike plausibly assumes that any Democrat in a “red” district whose 2008 margin of victory exceeded McCain’s might be in a pretty strong position to take a bullet for the donkey team. Here, however, are three provisos to this argument:
1) Risking serious GOP competition” is not as compelling a motive as “risking defeat,” but anyone familiar with how Members of Congress think would understand that the former is treated as a personal disaster by anyone ill-accustomed to heavy fundraising and campaigning. This is hardly a Blue Dog exclusive: some may remember the disputes over racial gerrymandering during the early 1990s, in which some members of the Congressional Black Caucus stoutly defended the “packing” of their districts with African-Americans, at the arguable expense of overall Democratic prospects, on grounds that they deserved a safe, not just a winnable, seat. (To their credit, many CBC members volunteered for less safe seats during the next round of redistricting). And in all fairness, it should be remembered that many of the “loyal” Democrats who fulminate about Blue Dog treachery haven’t had a competitive race since their first elections. Avoiding actual accountability to voters is hardly an honorable motive, but it’s real.
2) It’s generally assumed by many analysts that 2010 is likely to be a pro-Republican year, particularly in districts carried by McCain in 2008. So 2008 performance levels aren’t necessarily dispositive of 2010 prospects. But equally important, more than a few Blue Dogs are from states where Republicans are likely to control redistricting after 2010. Invincible Members tend to be treated kindly in opposition-party redistricting; potentially vulnerable Members could wind up with much more difficult districts than they represent today. This may seem to be a remote worry, but again, it’s real.
3) Most Blue Dogs, whatever you think of their principles, loyalty, or ethics, are not stupid people. They understand that association with “liberal” Obama initiatives may be a problem, but that the value of the “D” next to their name on the ballot also depends on Obama’s success as a president. So like any politician, they undertake a personal cost-benefit of their positions on legislation and the overall effect on Obama, the party, and political dynamics generally. This, as much as concerns over “timing,” helps create the Kabuki Theater atmospherics of Blue Dog rhetoric. Most Blue Dogs want Barack Obama to succeed, but many would prefer that he do so without their own votes.
This last factor helps explain why, in addition to the important timing concessions, the Blue Dogs have reached an agreement with Henry Waxman that will allow health care reform to emerge from the House, but probably with only enough Blue Dog votes to avoid disaster. It remains to be seen how many of the conceded and ultimately insignificant “no” votes from Democrats can be sorted into the principled, the suborned, or the politically endangered. In any event, the Blue Dog bark may be worse than its bite.

Bring on the Fire, Mr. President

This item by J.P. Green was first published on July 28, 2009.
Count me in as one of the more pro-Obama bloggers. I am generally pleased by the leadership he has provided to far, although I still sometimes have difficulty getting my head around the concept of being proud of a president — it’s been a long time. Yes I admire his speeches, but I also admire President Obama’s low-key, no drama leadership style, which is a good way to get things done — most of the time.
With respect to health care, however, there is something that should be said, and Frameshop‘s editor-in-chief, Jeffrey Feldman says it exceptionally well in his article “On Health Care, Obama Needs More Drama“:

Given the widespread fear that has spread throughout the national healthcare debate, I was surprised by the virtual absence of emotion in President Obama’s press conference performance…As a candidate, his speeches about “change” were so powerful that they spawned a pop culture industry. And yet, now that he is President and talking healthcare “change”–a national policy that will end the daily suffering and humiliation of tens of millions of Americans–Obama’s rhetorical passion has been displaced by the soporific drone of a mid-grade federal accountant. Where is the passion, Mr. President?

Feldman quotes a ho-hum passage from the President’s press conference, and adds “Obama’s words seemed to be governed by the logic of balance sheets rather than the emotion of lives in the balance.” Feldman may be overstating the President’s lack of discernable passion about health care reform, but he has a point. The balance sheet stuff is important — Americans want to know that proposed reforms are fiscally sound, and they are not going to get screwed by higher taxes. But it is up to the President, more than anyone, to arouse the citizenry’s anger at the gross injustice of the current “system.” Voters should be reminded of the urgency of heath care reform as a life or death issue for many Americans, because it is. With that accomplished, Feldman argues, then the President can shine the light on his fiscal prudence. Feldman adds,

OK, sure…The cost of inaction is greater than the cost of action, true. I agree. But healthcare reform is also about: the infuriating inhumanity of the current system…!
People are living lives in fear–children are dying, for goodness sakes. This is about injustice and the anger that tens of millions of people have been trapped in lives of fear as a result of health insurance business model that Congress has been too cowardly to confront for decades. And this is about the very real, very legitimate fears that people have as a result of thinking about the social and cultural shift that will result from having a public healthcare system that did not exist before…These are legitimate fears, and people are talking passionately about them all over the country.

Feldman calls for corrective action:

Obama’s single greatest strength as a politician has been his ability to speak in such a way that it makes Americans feel that we are soaring to new heights together…Franklin Roosevelt had that gift. John Kennedy had that gift. And Barack Obama has that gift, too. And needs to use it.

It’s going to take every bit of leverage the President can muster to get a decent health care bill enacted, and Feldman is right that the President’s remarkable ability to arouse and inspire is a weapon that should be unsheathed before it’s too late.

Is Obama Redefining Bipartisanship?

This item by Ed Kilgore was originally published at The New Republic on July 24, 2009
In recent news coverage of congressional action on health care reform, we’re back to one of Washington’s favorite games: the bipartisan trashing of the idea that Barack Obama cares about bipartisanship. Here’s a nice distillation of the CW from the New York Times’ Robert Pear and Michael Herszenhorn:

White House officials said they had a new standard for bipartisanship: the number of Republican ideas incorporated in the legislation, rather than the number of Republican votes for a Democratic bill. Mr. Obama said the health committee bill “includes 160 Republican amendments,” and he said that was “a hopeful sign of bipartisan support for the final product.”

Slate‘s John Dickerson sees this as the administration “replacing the traditional definition of bipartisanship with their version in the hopes that people don’t notice but still like the result.”
This bait-and-switch interpretation of the White House’s m.o., is, of course, political gold to Republicans, since it simultaneously absolves them of any responsibility the breakdown in bipartisanship while labeling the president as both partisan and deceitful. As has been the case throughout this year when Obama’s commitment to bipartisanship has been called into question, it is broadly assumed that the “traditional” definition of bipartisanship–pols getting together in Washington and cutting deals–is what candidate Obama was talking about on the campaign trail.
But there’s actually not much evidence of that. Obama eschewed Washington’s aisle-crossing metric in many of his campaign speeches, including his famous speech announcing his candidacy in February of 2007, his speech the night he clinched the Democratic nomination, and even on an occasion that screamed for the clubby bipartisanship of Washington, a bipartisan dinner on the eve of his nomination in which he shared the stage with his John McCain.
Obama made the same point over and over again in his rhetoric about bipartisanship: It’s about focusing on big national challenges without letting minor details get in the way of progress, and it’s about forcing the parties in Washington to deal with those challenges in the first place. It’s certainly not about the president of the United States going to Mitch McConnell and John Boener and saying: “Okay, boys, what do you want to do now?” In the past, I’ve called it “grassroots bipartisanship,” since it’s aimed more at disgruntled rank-and-file Republicans and Republican-leaning independents than at Republican elected officials. But whether that’s right or not, it’s clearly a conditional bipartisanship that depends on the willingness of the opposition to share the agenda on which Obama was elected.
Do congressional Republicans today share Obama’s goals, and simply disagree with Democrats on some details of implementation? With a very few exceptions, no, they don’t. On climate change, the range of opinion among congressional Republicans and conservative interest groups ranges from outright denial of global warming, to rejection of climate change as the top energy priority (viz. Sarah Palin’s recent op-ed refusing to acknowledge any issue other than “energy independence”), to rejection of any immediate action as impossible under current conditions. This refusal to cooperate is all the more remarkable since Democrats have themselves unilaterally compromised by embracing a market-oriented approach to regulating carbon emissions–the same approach once championed by the GOP’s 2008 presidential nominee–called “cap-and-trade,” which Republicans have now branded “cap-and-tax.”
And are congressional Republicans and conservative elites committed to universal health coverage? Maybe a few are, but the GOP’s opposition to Democratic health reform efforts has increasingly involved a defense of the status quo in health care (aside than their bizarre insistence that “frivolous lawsuits” are the main problem). Their violent rhetoric about the costs associated with universal health care is matched only by their violent opposition to any measures that would reduce those costs.
So you really can’t blame the White House for citing outreach to Republicans and adoption of Republican amendments as evidence of about the most bipartisanship they can reasonably achieve. If, like Dickerson, and many commentators from both ends of the political spectrum, you define bipartisanship in a way that excludes anything that doesn’t involve the sacrifice of basic principles or the abandonment of key policy goals, then to be sure, Barack Obama is not pursuing bipartisanship in that manner. But then he never was.

Let’s be honest. In international affairs, beneath clichés of “strength” versus “weakness” there are hard, inescapable military realities. It is these realities – not political rhetoric – that define what America actually can and cannot do

This item by James Vega was first published on July 21, 2009.
The continuing Republican criticisms of Obama as being “weak” and “apologizing to everybody” instead of being “strong” and “resolute” present these kinds of dichotomies as if they were abstract moral options between which Obama – and America – were completely free to choose. But the reality is that behind the abstract political rhetoric of terms like “strength” and “weakness” there is always the more practical level of military reality and the military strategies that can be based on it.
All of George Bush’s goals, threats, promises, language and rhetoric regarding the Arab-Persian world, for example, were not simply expressions of certain abstract moral values in which he just happened to believe but were firmly rooted in a very specific military analysis and strategy – a strategy that had been developed in the 1990s after the first invasion of Iraq. The basic premise of this strategy was that with the extraordinary military technology America had developed – known under the general rubric of the “Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA)” — America – in alliance with Israel — could militarily dominate the Middle East.
Looking at maps after the 1991 invasion of Iraq and considering the weak defense Saddam had mounted (US tanks had come within 70 miles of Bagdad, after all) these strategists concluded that by invading Iraq, converting it into a pro-US ally and setting up major military bases there we could obtain a central and decisive strategic position in the region. An invasion and pacification of Iraq would allow us to establish major American air, armor and infantry forces directly on Iran’s border and simultaneously threaten Syria and Jordan from the rear. This would severely weaken the main lines of communication and supply from Iran to the Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the occupied territories. In a domino effect, Israel would then find both Hezbollah and Hamas much more isolated and easier to control. Taken together, this would result in a combined US-Israeli military dominance of the region so powerful that it would allow us to then profoundly intimidate Iran and any other anti-US forces.
Two major corollaries followed from this basic military strategy. First, America had no real need for European or international allies (other than as window dressing) and second, America did not need to seek popular support in Muslim world. Military force by itself would be sufficient to achieve all our objectives. A massive network of U.S. air and land force bases in Iraq would serve as a permanent staging area for the fast and overwhelming projection of US military power and influence across the region while the dramatic success of the political and economic system we would install in Iraq would inspire Muslims to follow the U.S. example.
9/11 provided the opportunity to put this strategy into effect. From that time all of the rhetorical and political stances Bush took – and which Republicans continue to advocate today – were based on this underlying military analysis and military strategy.
Unfortunately, as all Americans are now painfully aware, from a purely military point of view, this strategy simply did not work.

Fun For Fiscal Hawks In California

This item by Ed Kilgore was first published on July 21, 2009.
One of the odder political phenomena of 2009 has been the strength of the neo-Hooverite argument that the most appropriate response to the deepest recession since the 1930s is radical retrenchment of public spending policies to mitigate (or, at the state and local level, avoid) deficits. Most Republicans and some Democrats have embraced the rhetoric of hard-core fiscal hawkery, with particularly tough words for those state and local governments who have suddenly, through no particular fault of their own, watched revenues drop through the floor.
Well, the fiscal hawks ought to be enjoying the latest news from California, where Republican manipulation of a two-thirds-vote requirement for enactment of a state budget has led to a no-tax-increase deal to close an astounding $26 billion state shortfall.
The deal does have a revenue component that manages to take money out of California’s economy without actually increasing the state’s revenue base: it will increase and speed up tax withholding, and exploit an arcane provision related to Prop 13 that enables the state to borrow (to the tune of $1.9 billion) property tax dollars from local governments, who will in turn, of course, be forced to cut their own spending.
The spending side of the deal includes $1.2 billion in unspecified cuts to prison expenditures–virtually guaranteed to force early release of prisoners, a practice that earlier led to public demands, in California and elsewhere, for mandatory sentencing rules and restrictions on parole and probation.
But the crown jewel of the spending cuts in the California budget deal is the continuation and extension of furloughs for public employees that amount to a 14% pay cut. This isn’t exactly great news for California businesses that will feel the impact of reduced consumer spending by state employees.
Given the Golden State’s size, there’s no question the budget deal (if, indeed, it secures legislative approval) will represent a significant blow to national economic recovery. But it will undoubtedly please those for whom public spending is the villain, and “sacrifice” in every area other than taxes is the panacea.