Friday, March 26, 2010

Big Nuclear Arms Reductions (yawn)

While the country is consumed by the passage of health insurance reform legislation, the administration's foreign policy team managed to conclude a major agreement with Russia dramatically reducing the nuclear arsenals of both nations.  Back in the 70's and 80's these arms limitations talks used to be gigantic news.  Anyone following politics with any serious interest had to be familiar with the terminology of SALT and SALT II and START and INF and ABM and MIRVs and the relative throw-weight of Soviet and U.S. launchers, and verification and SDI (Star Wars) and all kinds of stuff like that.  These were big political issues in Congress and in election campaigns.  (I guess people can tell that I am the kind of nerd who used to pay attention to these issues.) 

Nowadays it seems that nobody is paying much attention.  And that is probably a good thing.  For now that the Cold War is over, we can quietly go about making substantial reductions in redundant and excessive nuclear weapons that only exist because the other side has the same size arsenal of such weapons. 

(photo: the good old Cold War days, as parodied in Dr. Strangelove)

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

How Bi-Partisanship Works

On Saturday, demonstrators, with the encouragement of some Republican members of Congress, were marching through the streets and the halls trying to intimidate lawmakers from voting for reform.  On Sunday, Republican legislators, knowing the bill was going to pass, were reduced to making short protest speeches.  Monday morning after the bill passed the House, some Republican members of Congress introduced bills repealing the legislation.  By Tuesday, while a number of state attorneys general filed lawsuits the moment the bill was signed, talk of repeal was starting to die down, as Republican legislators realized they would never have the votes to overcome a presidential veto during a Democratic administration, and polls started to show the legislation is generally supported by the voters.  And today, Senator Charles Grassley became one of the first Republicans to start trying to take credit for parts of the legislation he voted against, even while he and his colleagues in the Senate continue to resort to various stalling tactics to delay the House follow-up bill from passing.

Before long, I expect to start hearing from some Republican representatives that they supported many of the health care reforms all along, but had to vote against the package in deference to their leaders' tactical decisions. By the time of the fall campaigns, we can expect Republicans to start accusing their Democratic opponents of not doing enough to make sure that everyone has access to affordable health care.  And years from now, when the next big piece of reform legislation comes along, we can be sure that Republicans will be making impassioned speeches to prevent the Democrats from trying to take away some of the benefits of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act that Republicans have always embraced, just as they recently attacked Democrats for trying to cut the Republicans' beloved Medicare program.

(above, the White House official video of the signing speeches, with Joe Biden's succinct explanation of the significance of health care reform whispered in the president's ear at the end of Biden's introduction)

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Is Bi-Partisanship Dead?

Passage of the health care reform bill without a single Republican vote raises the strategic question whether it is even worthwhile for the Democrats and the Obama administration to continue to try to negotiate with Congressional Republicans to pursue the Democrats' agenda.  Perhaps they would have just as much success relying on their own members, instead of making futile efforts to compromise important legislation in the illusory hope that a few Republicans can be persuaded to get on board.   A lot of people who have been second-guessing the president's strategy for months contend that if he had opened the negotiations by demanding a single payer system, or if he had pushed the public option idea harder, we might have ended up with a bill closer to what more liberal Democrats wanted.  So many compromises were made to attempt to win over the Charles Grassleys and the Olympia Snowes.  Maybe those compromises were unnecessary since not even moderate Republicans could be induced to vote for the final package.  Research also supports a theory of negotiation (called "anchoring") that advises that starting from a more extreme position will tend to get a party a better result in the end.  Even though I think there is merit to the "anchoring" idea in negotiations, I am not prepared to second-guess the administration's strategy.  We really have no way of knowing if a more aggressive initial posture would have resulted in a more "liberal" bill.  It seems equally likely to me that a more aggressive negotiating posture could have derailed the entire process.  Look at how much anger and backlash erupted against even this moderate bill.  Imagine the tea party protests that would have occurred if the administration had been pushing a true government takeover of the health care system.

I also think that even though no Republicans voted for the final bill, that was the result of a tactical decision by the Republican leadership, and there is actually a bit of support for many of the health care reforms among at least some Republicans.  The initial vote in the House last year included one Republican vote, and Senator Snowe initially voted in favor of reporting the bill out of committee.  Other Republicans have spoken in favor of some of the bill's elements in the past, and could be secretly in favor of some of the reforms.  But Republicans are somehow better at managing party discipline than Democrats, and when the leaders told their members to just say no, they all fell in line.  There are some prominent voices, notably David Frum, questioning whether the Republicans were smart to adopt such a negative strategy.   If Frum is right, then the Democrats made the smart tactical decision to reach across the aisle, and the Republicans made a huge mistake in rejecting those overtures.  Only time will tell, of course.

The final vote on health care reform might also not turn out to be a good indicator of whether bi-partisanship would work in other areas.  In dealing with issues of less prominence, some Republicans might decide that it is in their political interests to support compromise legislation.  A number of Republicans already voted for the jobs bill.  Another item clamoring for attention on the agenda could be immigration reform.  President Bush and a number of Republicans supported that effort the last time it came up, and some Republicans could do so again  (understanding that the anti-immigrant fervor of the most rabid portion of the Republican base will make it a problem for most Republicans to support immigration reform).   It is not only smart politically for at least some Republican Congressmen to support immigration reform (otherwise they can kiss the huge Hispanic vote good-bye), it is also in the business interests of a lot of Republican constituents to legalize their workforces.  For similar reasons, there could also be a few Republican votes for environmental legislation, or financial regulation.

Democrats also understand that their majorities are probably going to shrink in the next Congress, so bi-partisanship may become more of a necessity.  So after some of the anger dies down on both sides, cooler heads should probably recognize that the idea of bi-partisanship is not entirely dead.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

Until yesterday, the federal government had no responsibility to make sure that health care was available and affordable for all Americans.  As of today, that has changed, most likely irrevocably.  I'd like to go on record saying that the health care bill passed by the House yesterday has no better chance of being repealed than Medicare has of being repealed, or Social Security, or Civil Rights.  It will be amended forever, but it will never be repealed.  So from today forward, the debate will be all about how to fulfill the government's responsibility to make sure that affordable health care is available for everyone, not about whether the government has that responsibility.  Whatever people think of the details of the actual bill that was passed yesterday, everyone should recognize that that is a monumental change.

Coincidentally, I hosted a meeting yesterday put on by the still-active members of a local Obama campaign organization, and California OneCare, which is supporting efforts that have been made for years to adopt single payer health care in California.  It was interesting that our guests took for granted the final historic debate on the health care bill before the House of Representatives, which was proceeding during our meeting.  To them, the federal plan represents only a first step that has raised awareness of the issue, but is going to solve only a few of the problems they hope to resolve.  They aim to take private insurance companies out of the picture entirely.  Private hospitals and doctors would still provide health care, but companies who have a financial interest is in denying care would no longer be responsible for paying for it.  By their calculations, under a properly-implemented single payer system, we will actually spend less on health care than we spend now, but everyone will be covered for everything.

So while the media will continue to devote lots of attention to the efforts of a vocal minority to roll back health care reform, it should soon become apparent how futile those efforts are.  Meanwhile, groups like California OneCare will be working quietly to build more momentum for even more comprehensive and more workable solutions to the provision of health care in this country.

(J. Colman photo)

Friday, March 19, 2010

What Liz Cheney Doesn't Know

Referring to Attorney General Eric Holder's testimony before Congress the other day, in which he compared the rights accorded to terrorists accused of murder, to the rights of convicted murderer Charles Manson, Liz Cheney's organization complained that Holder "doesn't know we're at war."   I wonder--considering that the Attorney General of the United States is sworn to uphold the law in the prosecution of any individuals under U.S. jurisdiction, regardless of the state of hostilities between the United States and any other nation or rogue organization--to what extent it should make a difference whether he understands that we are at war.  Or to put it another way, what is it about being at war that Eric Holder supposedly doesn't understand?   And why is it important to you, Liz Cheney, to keep reminding us that we are at war?

The Supreme Court already decided, while Bush was president, and with seven Republicans on the court, that Guantanamo detainees, even though they are foreign nationals, even though they were captured abroad, even though they are held on a base on the island of Cuba, even though they were captured in armed conflict, and even though they are suspected terrorists, have certain constitutional rights.  Even before that decision, the Bush administration had already decided to accord those detainees legal representation and trials before military tribunals, thus recognizing that they have rights.  So when Attorney General Holder recognizes that terror suspects have rights, he is not saying anything new.

When the Attorney General compares terror suspects to one of the most notorious serial killers in history, what exactly is offensive about that comparison?  Perhaps the terror suspect, who believes he is engaged in some kind of a holy crusade, might be offended by debasing what he thinks of as a noble sacrifice to the level of the self-aggrandizing actions of a deranged killer, but why should Bush era apologists and Republican Congressmen be offended?   After all, they are the ones insisting that terrorist acts be treated as acts of war, which in some ways dignifies the status of these cowards to the level of enemy combatants.  These terror suspects probably would agree with Liz Cheney that they should not be thought of as common criminals.

Insistence on the terminology of war as opposed to the terminology of the criminal justice system, therefore, must have more symbolic than substantive meaning.  Whether they are perpetrators of armed warfare, or whether they are common criminals, they still must receive some semblance of a fair trial if they are to be convicted of any crimes, or else they must be held in a status similar to prisoners of war, for the duration of conflict.  Those who like to remind us that we are at war may have an interest in elevating the stature of the enemy, as the existence of a powerful enemy can be used to justify high military expenditures, restrictions on personal liberties, harsh treatment of prisoners, government secrecy, and other manifestations of a militarized society.  At the same time, use of the war metaphor is helpful in dehumanizing the enemy.   So while trying a terrorist in a federal court, and according him the same rights as Charles Manson, may not represent any significant threat to public safety, nevertheless the idea offends those who would prefer to scare the public and demonize the enemy.

What they actually seem to find offensive is the possibility that the Obama administration's actions will reduce the level of fear and paranoia in our society (or as they would probably prefer to call it, the level of preparedness and awareness of external dangers).   Those of us who prefer appeals to hope and change, rather than hate and fear, however, would be much relieved by a diminution in the general level of hostility in our society, as well as greater respect for the rule of law.  Everyone can still agree that those who murder civilians should get their just desserts.  What may have changed, which could explain what Liz Cheney seems so steamed about, is that we no longer believe we must turn to the dark side to accomplish that goal. 

(AP photo composite from Politico)

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Presidential Popularity

Who was more popular, Obama or Reagan?  The conventional wisdom is that Reagan was an extremely popular president, while the drumbeat about Obama seems ominously negative, with numerous reports of his failures and popular disapproval.   (so much for the supposedly liberal media!)   Could Obama's unpopularity be partly a result of perennially dissatisfied liberals, unhappy that the Obama administration has not brought all the troops home, locked all the Wall Street executives in jail, and enacted Medicare for all?  Could it be the result of a concerted effort by the right to attack the administration's every proposal?

Or could it be that the conventional wisdom is actually entirely wrong?  According to Gallup, Obama's approval rating has been holding steady at around 50% since last fall (it reached a low of 46% earlier this month and currently stands at 48%)   Considering all of the negativity in the media, and how much attention is paid to the critics and protesters, and considering that we are still mired in perhaps the worst economy since the Great Depression, an approval rating of close to 50% really doesn't seem all that bad. 

How does that compare to the supposedly immensely popular Ronald Reagan?  It might surprise a lot of people to know that Reagan's average approval rating during his presidency was only 53%, again according to Gallup. Reagan was more popular than his predecessors, Nixon, Ford and Carter, but significantly less popular than his successors George Bush I or Bill Clinton.  During Reagan's second year in office (reminder: we are in Obama's second year in office), Reagan's approval rating averaged 43%.   FORTY-THREE PERCENT!

Why isn't the media talking about how incredibly popular President Barack Obama is?  He is a good five points ahead of the incredibly popular Ronald Reagan.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Glenn Beck on Social Justice

Last week on his radio program, Glenn Beck spoke out strongly against social justice:
I beg you, look for the words "social justice" or "economic justice" on your church Web site. If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice, they are code words. Now, am I advising people to leave their church? Yes! If I'm going to Jeremiah's Wright's church? Yes! Leave your church. Social justice and economic justice. They are code words. If you have a priest that is pushing social justice, go find another parish.
(from Chrisianity Today magazine)   As Beck explained elsewhere in his program, what he means by "code words" is that terms like "social justice" were also employed by Nazis and Communists to rally their followers.  I guess that means that anyone who preaches social justice could be leading us down the path to totalitarianism.  So I followed Beck's suggestion and searched my temple's website for the term "social justice."  Lo and behold, I found over 100 references to social justice: discussion groups, programs, seminars, committees, you name it.  Little did I know that all the do-gooders at my temple are actually advocates of tyranny.  So if you follow Glenn Beck, I guess you should run away from my temple, and presumably any church, synagogue or mosque that uses the words "social justice" or "economic justice."  I'm thinking that following this advice would empty out an awful lot of pretty mainstream churches.

I also wonder where Glenn Beck's followers are going to find a church that preaches social injustice.  Presumably, if social justice is a bad thing, that we should run away from, then we should be trying to create more social injustice.  But for some reason you don't find too many preachers advocating injustice as a way of sparing us from totalitarianism. 

What next for Glenn Beck?  Now that he has come out firmly against social justice, will he be telling us to turn away from brotherhood next?  Should we distrust compassion?  What about love?  How do we know those aren't code words also?   Next thing you know, the only churches that will be acceptable to Glenn Beck's followers will be those openly advocating hate, intolerance, and fear.  Or maybe that's already a pretty good summary of Beck's message.

David Brooks on Obama

I'm not usually a big fan of David Brooks, but he has been a consistently reasonable voice of appreciation of candidate and President Obama.  His column Thursday in the New York Times makes the interesting point that liberals and conservatives paint diametrically opposed views of the president, liberals seeing him as cerebral, intellectual, and too quick to compromise; while conservatives see him as ruthless, arrogant and partisan.  Obviously neither viewpoint is accurate.  Conservatives just want to paint the opposition leader as scarier than he actually is; while liberals are disappointed that Obama has not advanced the liberal agenda as far or as fast as many would have liked.

But more than pointing out that the most vociferous political voices seem to be unable to represent the man accurately, Brooks also gives Obama credit for some substantive achievements.  On health care, Brooks believes that "Obama has pushed this program with a tenacity unmatched in modern political history."  On education, Brooks asserts that  "Obama has been the most determined education reformer in the modern presidency."  On foreign policy and economic policy, Brooks also gives Obama a lot of credit for pursuing pragmatic solutions.

It's sad that the president makes such a big target for criticism that he is continually misrepresented by all factions of the political spectrum.  But it's reassuring to see even somebody who doesn't generally agree with Obama ideologically appreciate his solid achievements thus far. 

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Joe Biden in Israel

Vice-President Biden makes a big, splashy trip to Israel for the express purpose of reassuring the Israelis of the continuing support of the Obama administration.  Either through stupidity or perhaps some kind of right wing plot, the Interior Minister approves a giant new housing development in East Jerusalem while Biden is there, and Biden ends up having to speak some tough words to the Netanyahu government, which overshadows all the friendly talk and photo opportunities.  Maybe the timing of the announcement of new settlements was just an accident and should not matter.  The Israeli government has made no secret of the fact that settlement projects are continuing, and will not be suspended to placate the Palestinian demands for pre-conditions to negotiation.  But of course timing does matter, because of how Biden's trip is reported, and how it is perceived around the world. 

I have to wonder what is really going on here.  Perhaps the whole episode was just bad luck and bad timing.  Perhaps factions of the Israeli government are really trying to test the Obama administration's commitment to Israel.  Perhaps they are actually trying to derail the peace process.  Perhaps they just don't understand that such actions not only endanger U.S. troops in the Middle East, as Biden pointed out, but also can weaken public support for Israel in the U.S. 

The Obama administration is committed to making sustained efforts to promote peace; they understand it is going to take time; and there are signs of a few positive steps taking place behind the scenes.  Some smart people, like George Mitchell, and Joe Biden himself, are heavily involved.  The administration seems focused on the big picture, and does not want to get sidetracked by the day-to-day accumulating grievances on both sides.  They are surely right to remind both the Israelis and Palestinians to focus on their long-term interests, and not their current provocations.  Yet despite all that effort, what ends up getting projected is more fumbling and bumbling on both sides, and continued mistrust and friction.  Unfortunate, but hopefully not a serious setback.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Let them chew on carpets!

Garrison Keillor on the current occupant of the White House:
We have a good guy in the White House, a smart man of judicious temperament and profound ideals, a man with a sweet private life, a man of dignity and good humor, whose enemies, waving their hairy arms and legs, woofing, yelling absurdities, only make him look taller. Washington, being a company town, feasts on gossip, but I think the Democratic Party, skittish as it is, full of happy blather, somehow has brought forth a champion. This should please anyone who loves this country, and as for the others, let them chew on carpets and get what nourishment they can. End of sermonette.
(from Salon)   He goes on to talk about Minnesota's new baseball stadium, the Beatles' White Album, his favorite medical clinic, and stuff like that.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Voting with Your Feet

Sarah Palin, giving a speech in Calgary, talked about what it was like growing up close to the Canadian border:
“We used to hustle over the border for health care we received in Canada,” she said. “And I think now, isn't that ironic?”
Ironic indeed.  And I can think of some other words also. Like clueless, perhaps?

Maybe Canadians should be cracking down on American visitors, who have been streaming across the border to take advantage of their country's excellent health care system, then running back to the US to stir up fear and anger at any attempts to rationalize our own system.  Maybe the Canadians ought to at least ask for an endorsement of their system before they fill prescriptions for hypocritical Americans. 

Sarah Palin's continued campaign against health care reform also reminds me of these protesters:

(photo from CMA)

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Health Care End Game

The President takes ownership of the health care bill.  Time to take a vote and get it done! 

Love Wins

If we now allow same sex marriage in Washington, D.C., assuming Congress or the courts don't stop it, doesn't that mean that the battle for marriage equality is essentially over?  D.C. is, after all, the capital of the United States of America.  When visitors from foreign countries tour our capital, they probably assume that whatever is allowed in the capital must be the law of the United States.  The nuances of our federal system are probably lost on most of the world.  And while protesters from Kansas and elsewhere are making a valiant last ditch stand against same sex marriage, they also will have a hard argument to make that the capital of the United States of America is not the real America.  But do they understand, I wonder, that they so emphatically and proudly stand for hate, while the couples getting married stand for love?

The photo above shows Morgan Murphy and Todd Williamson, a straight couple who waited in protest until gay marriage was allowed, before getting a marriage license, and an unidentified hater draped in flags and a stylish purple sweatshirt. (by Jeff Malet from TPM)   That's at least one piece of anecdotal evidence that allowing gay marriage is not exactly threatening this particular traditional marriage.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Jim Bunning Gets Another 15 Minutes of Fame.

Tonight we salute Kentucky Senator and Hall of Famer Jim Bunning who held up an extension of unemployment benefits, insisting that it be balanced by cuts elsewhere in the federal budget.  Way to take a stand against wasteful government spending Jim!  Smart choice to come out against probably the most politically popular and non-controversial program you can find--helping the unemployed cope with the economic downturn.  You gave Democrats a chance to point out that you never insisted that the Iraq war be paid for, or the Bush tax cuts, or any other deficit spending run up during the Bush years.  But when we get to an extension of unemployment benefits, that was it.  That was the time to show everyone where we should draw the line.  Thanks for reminding us that it is the Republicans who periodically like to shut down the federal government to try to make some point or other.  Ask Newt Gingrich how that tactic worked out for him back in the 90's. 

If only you hadn't backed down so quickly.  I'm sure everyone would have loved to see Jim Bunning holding the Senate open all night to protect the unemployed from getting handouts from the government.  I'm sure that would have made just as exciting television as pitching a perfect game in 1964, something I'm sure you would rather be remembered for. 

My only complaint is that I am getting tired of doing posts on the dysfunctional United States Senate, and would like to find something else to write about, except that the Senate is so distracting.