Scott Erb

Professor of Political Science, University of Maine - Farmington

Homepage: https://scotterb.wordpress.com

Will the ACA (aka Obamacare) endure?

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The failure of the GOP “repeal and replace” bill was a major defeat for both the President and Speaker Ryan.

Steve Bannon, Trump’s strategic analyst and dark guru, met with the Freedom Caucus to lay down the law.  “You have no choice but to vote for this bill,” Bannon commanded, not realizing that Congress people don’t like being told what to do, even by a White House controlled by their own party.

Bannon’s logic made sense:  If the bill to repeal and replace the ACA fails, then Obamacare survives, perhaps indefinitely.  If the White House gives in to the ultra-conservative freedom caucus, then moderate Republicans would bolt, assuring the bill’s defeat.   However imperfect – only a small reduction in the deficit, despite having 24 million more uninsured within a decade – the legislation  was the only way to keep the promise to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

While some in the freedom caucus were tempted – one person has quit the caucus out of frustration of having the group obstruct the President’s agenda – the three dozen members held true to the belief that the replacement was simply “Obamacare light,” and did not undo the most objectionable aspects of the ACA.

Making things harder for the GOP was that the ACA’s favorability went into positive territory this January – the first time since its passage.  In fact, favorability was + 10% in many polls, a turn around from just a few months before.  The reason: once people started to understand what it would mean to have the act repealed, they had second thoughts.   Republicans in Congress learned that on their ‘town hall meetings’ over the last couple months as well.  Many in the party feared that “Trumpcare” would be a disaster and give the Democrats something to rally around.  Keeping the ACA, anathema to many Republicans, might be best for the party’s electoral chances in 2018.

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In an embarrassing gaffe, the American Action Network forgot to cancel ads thanking Republicans for voting to replace the ACA. Oops

So does this mean Obamacare is here to stay?   The odds are good that it will endure.  To be sure, President Trump made what Nancy Pelosi called a “rookie mistake,” trying to ram ‘repeal and replace’ through quickly.  President Obama took over a year to pass the ACA, despite enjoying a much larger majority in both houses.  Obama had to cajole, deal, and adjust the proposal numerous time – health care is complicated, as President Trump recently noted with some surprise.

But it’s very difficult to roll back a government program that helps millions of people.  Once it’s gone, the personal stories of people who lose insurance, and maybe some who die or endure medical cost bankruptcy will become common place, and be a big issue for the Democrats.  Republicans, seeing the popularity of the program, are loathe to do anything to squander the political power they’ve worked ten years to achieve.

Republicans knew Obamacare would be hard to repeal; this is why they tried so hard to delay or prevent implementation of the ACA.  They knew it would be like Medicare/Medicaid had been back in the sixties – extremely controversial to pass, but once in place, all but impossible to roll back.

Ultimately, the ACA has numerous flaws that need to be fixed.  Perhaps a bipartisan effort coming from the Senate can move in that direction, and later gain support from President Trump, who right now absolutely loathes the “freedom caucus.”  But a GOP-only “repeal and replace” looks unlikely.   For a party that voted to repeal the ACA sixty times when they knew it would be vetoed, reality is proving far more daunting.

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Signed into law March 23, 2010 – almost seven years to the day that Trump and Ryan pulled the repeal and replace bill – the ACA endures

My prediction: in the coming years reality will force Congress and the President (including whoever comes after Trump) to make changes to the ACA.   Overtime, like Medicaid and Medicare (and before that Social Security) this once extremely controversial bill will become mainstream and accepted by both parties.   People will remember March 24, 2017 as the day that the ACA was on its deathbed, and thanks to hard core conservatives who did not want to compromise, Obamacare prevailed.   Ironically, this may be the best outcome for the Republican party in the long term.  It may also be the point where the freedom caucus and hard core conservatives in the House finally jumped the shark.

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La Dolce Vita

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I have not blogged for over a week, and it’ll be a few days before I venture to write anything serious.  I am in Italy, leading a community member and alumni trip that ends alas on Monday.   This May I return, this time with students.  So I’m getting a good taste of Italy.

Nothing serious in this blog except that travel is truly a wonderful experience.  It changes you, and stays with you more than any material possession would.  It also is the best kind of relief from the daily grind.  Even though I’m working – setting up schedules, leading a group, taking care of planning – I’m away from the daily routine.

The best part is that without the daily worries of what has to be done and what tasks are ahead, one really lives in the moment.  All that matters is the experience as it happens.  The people along on the trip become close friends, even if I know that after we return we’ll all go back into our own worlds and hardly see each other.  For now, this moment, this day, we are sharing a wonderful experience.

Whether it’s food, gelato, walking through Florence at night as the vibrant city is alive with buskers, people out and about, and the glorious sites of the Duomo, Piazza della Signora, and the Ponte Vecchio, one lives in the moment, and feels relieved of stress, anxiety and worries about petty things like what’s going on in the news.

We started in Sorrento, went to Pompei, the Amalfi coast, Positano, Naples, Rome – that is also a city full of vigor as the past co-exists alongside the modern.  We end in Firenze (Florence), a truly wonderful experience.   At dinner last night we thought briefly about the fact the trip is soon ending, a few of us singing “back to life, back to reality…”   But then we said, NO!  Now we are in Italy.  Now we have a glass of Chianti in front of us, and can laugh and enjoy la dolce vita!

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This is Not Normal

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All six of these things happened.

That’s why so many Americans can’t treat him as a normal President.  That’s why the response to him has been so widespread and deep.   There is a sense that he’s impulsive, insecure and dangerous.

Let’s go one by one:

1) Is the US as bad as Putin’s Russia?  Certainly some on the far left think so.  And the US has killed innocents in pursuit of its aims.  But at least so far domestic political opponets haven’t been jailed, poisoned and denied a voice.   Perhaps Trump is tolerant of Putin because he deep down would like to just stifle opposition and control things himself?   Republicans have been adamant that Trump’s moral relativism on this issue is wrong – they may be waking up to how dangerous this President can be.

2) A threat to “defund” California is bizarre.   As the graphic notes, California pays more in federal taxes than it gets back (the biggest receivers of federal money are the so-called red states, ironically).  Trump claims California is “out of control.”  Well – outside his control, as it considers making itself a ‘sanctuary state.’  But defunding California would be utterly unconstitutional and insane – the fact Trump makes that kind of threat shows he doesn’t understand the Constitution.  In fact, Trump could learn from how  Governor Jerry Brown took a state that was in financial crisis and turned things around.

3)  This is nefarious and dark.   Judges rule based on the law, and this conservative jurist, appointed by President Bush, ruled the executive order on immigration was likely unconstitutional, and thus put it on hold until it could be examined.  This means that the normal reality of the past decade continues – only well vetted immigrants can enter.  Yet Trump wants people to blame this individual judge if any kind of terrorism happens.  That’s an incitement to violence against the judicial branch.  To me, that statement is so dangerous and disgusting that it rises to an impeachable offense.

4)  Something like elevating someone to the National Security Council is a big deal.  If a President is going to do it, he should know he’s doing it.  If he does not, that suggests that he is lazy, letting others do the work, and simply being bombastic when his emotions get the better of him.   As Trump might put it:  Not good.

5)  The last economic collapse was caused by Wall Street.  It was a free market crisis, as unregulated mortgage backed bonds (as well as CDO’s and other ominous financial instruments) created an environment where loans were given to anyone, without regard to their ability to pay, and people fed into a massive speculative bubble.  If government regulations like those CFTC head Brooksley Born advocated in the 90s had been in place, this might not have happened.   The response since then has been meager; the banks still have the capacity to manipulate the system, and those who created the crisis have not been punished.  Trump’s actions take away even those meager protections and set up another bubble and financial collapse — but only after hundreds of billions of dollars are made on Wall Street by the financial class.

6)  Perhaps most disturbing is that the truth is irrelevant to Trump.  Anything negative about him is fake news.  He’ll claim his inauguration crowd was the largest in history, even though it’s laughable.   His world of “alternate facts” suggest it’s all marketing, a big con.

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Telling was the response of Trump to McCarthy’s portrayal of Spicer. He was angered because he felt it made Spicer look weak to have a woman portray him. That speaks volumes.

The secret of the con is to keep up confidence (con man comes from confidence man).  That means never admitting one is wrong.  Simply lie, but do so persuasively, after creating conditions where the marks (victims) want to believe.   Trump has made a living doing this, the truth is irrelevant to him.  Now as President he’s taken this to a new level, but finds that the press investigates every claim and calls him on the carpet for falsehoods.  When he demands his spokespeople repeat the lies, they are mocked very effectively by satire, such as Melissa McCarthy’s devastating portrayal of Trump press secretary Sean Spicer.   Threatening the press has only made the press more intent on outing any administration misdeeds.

For those who say, “give him a chance,” or “pray for the President to do his best,” I reject that as abdicating our duty as individuals to be on watch for threats to the Republic.   Maybe President Trump will learn that this isn’t a reality show, and recognize that his current path is leading him to spectacular failure.  Maybe he will learn to make better choices.  But that won’t happen unless the opposition call him on his lies, explore and lay bare the consequences of his policies, and not be intimidated.

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Trump, the Media and Republicans

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As a political scientist I’ve always believed in the importance of accepting election results as legitimate, and treating whoever is elected with respect.   Democracy rests on a belief that opposition and disagreement are good, and that it is a good idea to have power switch between parties – one party in power for too long leads to corruption.

The election of Donald Trump is forcing me to question my long standing belief that American democracy has a political culture and institutions capable of protecting democratic principles regardless of who is President.

It’s not just that I don’t agree with Donald Trump.  I disagreed with George W. Bush’s decision to go to war in Iraq, but never thought he lacked respect for America’s core ideals. I disagreed with his method and some of his beliefs about how the world works, but knew that at base we shared a respect for democracy and individual rights.

I’m not convinced Donald Trump shares that.  After his election I wrote “don’t panic.”  Well, panic is never good so yes, don’t panic.  But I believed that the Republican party would need to help Trump cope with his new role, and thus experts and advisors would lead him to a series of policies that respected democracy.

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Margaret Chase Smith (R-Maine) was one of the first of her party to stand up to McCarthy when he veered into fascist tactics

Oh, there might be big fights.  There always are.   But if you lose fights now, that just means working harder to win the next election so you can win the next battle.  Those loses might be really painful; the choice of war in 2003 has lead to tragic consequences globally, including many of the problems in the Mideast today.  Politics involves fights about consequential things.

But this seems different.  Alternate facts.  Fights about crowd size.  An immigration executive order that shows no empathy for the well vetted people who in good faith have waited for a visa to immigrate, or who are fleeing a war zone.   Calling a Judge who temporarily rescinds that order a “so-called Judge.”   Twitter rants aimed at the media and normal citizens, a President who thinks it’s OK to insult and ridicule others.

Or the role of Steve Bannon, who is on record predicting a war with China within five years, a PR maven movie maker, now given a seat on the National Security Council.  The President having angry phone calls with other world leaders, and who by all accounts lives to seek revenge against those he considers “enemies.”   Utter disdain for the press, talk of toughening up libel laws (really – does he think the President can sue someone for libel?)

Republicans say he’s still learning the job.   Others say he is psychologically unstable.  But for the first time, I wonder if consumerism and nationalism may finally be overcoming our core American values.

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Edward R. Murrow, who made a name for himself reporting from London during WWII, took on McCarthy. Reporters need to be fair but aggressive with President Trump.

This has happened before.   Joe McCarthy launched a proto-fascist witch hunt that went on for years before he was stopped.  Then it was a mix of courageous reporters like Edward R. Murrow and people in his own party, like Margaret Chase Smith, who brought down McCarthy.

If President Trump keeps up this behavior, we’ll need to rely on the media to report everything and not be intimidated by the White House.  We’ll have to rely on Republicans, many of whom are silently fuming at Trump’s antics, some of whom have already spoken out.   I believe that the Speaker of the House Paul Ryan has a moral conscience and a strong belief in American democracy.  So do most of his Republican colleagues in the House and Senate.

President Trump can only do so much without Congressional support.  Most Republicans want to work with the President to promote conservative ideas.  But they need to stand up to him if he maintains his current reckless approach.   They need to recognize that democracy trumps party loyalty.   Democrats and liberals will protest and resist, and that’s important.  But when it comes to governmental power, Republican legislators have a responsibility to step up should Trump’s behavior continue to defy the norms and values that define American democracy.

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An American Coup

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Farmington, Maine, March 6, 2041

Now that the world has settled into a new equilibrium of sorts, it’s time to reflect on how things fell apart so completely.   While we may never again see a world of mass consumption, convenience and material excess like that which existed when the century began, nobody expected it to unravel so quickly.

It started on January 16, 2018.   1-16.  The day that, up until a few years ago, was considered the greatest terror attack in US history.   President Donald Trump was set to give his second state of the union address.   After a rocky first year, he was hoping to convince Americans that he could be trusted.  This speech would be a big one.  In the Capital they gathered – all the Senators, Congresspeople, Supreme Court Justices, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Vice President.   Only 71 year old Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue was absent, watching the speech in the White House with Steve Bannon.

As President Trump began his speech there were some noises.   People looked around, Trump seemed irritated.  Then with the whole nation watching on television, there was a bolt of fire and then nothing – the feed stopped.  In the capital a series of bombs exploded, utterly destroying the building and its occupants.  The President, Vice President, Supreme Court and Congress, all branches of the US government were destroyed.  ISIS took responsibility.

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Bannon plotted the coup as if it were one of his movies, done so well that it was nearly two decades before the full truth was known.

Steve Bannon had invited Sonny Perdue to the White House to watch the speech.   He offered Perdue a drink, and the two joked.  Within minutes Perdue had the symptoms of a heart attack, and was dead before Trump had even started.   With no one left in the Presidential line of succession, and the Supreme Court gone, the US entered a constitutional crisis.   Bannon was ready.

In Trump’s first year Bannon had identified military officers who would create potential problems for him on this night.  He convinced the President they were disloyal and Trump fired them.  Bannon maneuvered people he could manipulate to high ranking positions.   Senator McCain had accused Trump of “promoting dimwits and dilettantes.”   But McCain was now gone.

Steve Bannon called an emergency press conference.  As the one remaining member of the National Security Council Principles group, he said that until a new set of elections could be arranged, he would be acting President.   He was ready for the next part.   He used all his skill as a movie maker and PR maven to orchestrate a move towards authoritarianism, with him in charge.

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The destruction of the Golden Gate Bridge was one of a series of spectacular ‘terror attacks’ that swept Americans into a frenzy.

Bannon had plotted the attacks well, using foreign intelligence officers to do the dirty work, minimizing a chance someone would leak.   Cities across the country suffered apparent attacks, FOX News became Bannon’s propaganda channel, and media controls were put in place “to assure public safety during this chaotic period.”   With no Supreme Court, Bannon became a dictator.   Everything was following his script.

He announced that to “rebuild the economy” he was defaulting on all debt, so America could start clean and ‘rebuild at home.’  Alas, the global economy doesn’t follow a script.  The global financial system buckled, credit became impossible to get, and soon US unemployment hit 30%, and even China found itself in depression.   Needing a distraction Bannon blamed ISIS and the US launched a war to “claim our oil in the Mideast.”

By the end of 2018 Americans started to realize that Bannon was out of control, with no checks or balances.  Opposition coalesced around former President Obama, who called on Americans to reclaim their government.   But with war and depression sowing fear, and media controls tight, Bannon’s propaganda machine kept many loyal to him.   Obama was declared guilty of treason and had to lead the movement in hiding, uploading speeches and directives, staying one step ahead of the secret police.

With the economy in collapse and global governments deserting the US – China, Russia and the EU put together a non-aggression treaty and worked to undermine the US war in the Mideast — by 2020 it was clear Bannon was failing.   Desperate, he turned to the use of nuclear weapons in the Mideast.   That was the last straw.  Resistance at home grew bolder, and on October 2, 2021 an internal coup removed Bannon.   Later President Obama convened a “constitutional Congress” to plan a return to democracy.

The 20 years since then have been tough.  The global economy has never recovered, and the war caused a long term energy crisis as the nuclear weapons rendered the oil fields unusable.  Some say we’ve entered a new dark age, and for awhile it felt that way. But we’ve rediscovered the importance of community and nature, and lately the emergence of sustainable energy sources suggests we’re now on the right track.

Professor Thomas Percy argues that Bannon may have inadvertently saved humanity.  The economic collapse and drastic decline in fossil fuel usage has led to CO2 levels in the atmosphere to stabilize, and are likely to soon decline.  “On the path we were going, by now we’d be feeling a different kind of global crisis, and one that could have destroyed civilization.  Now we have a chance.”   That’s a plot twist that even Bannon couldn’t have scripted.

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Steve Bannon – Puppetmaster?

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If you thought the January 21st global march was just a flash in the pan, frustrated liberals having trouble accepting the fact they lost, think again.   As the first week of the Trump Presidency unfolded people previously apathetic to politics started to notice – and act.

The latest episode involves a bizarre decision to indefinitely suspend accepting Syrian refugees, to suspend accepting other refugees for 120 days, and to bar any immigrants from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen entrance for 90 days.  Steve Bannon, recently named to the National Security Council (NSC)  by President Trump, personally intervened to assure that even green card holders from those countries could not enter.

The claim is that the US needs to protect itself from terrorism.  Yet the ban did not include Saudi Arabia or Egypt.  Most of the 9-11 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia.  The ban on green card holders from entering the countries created turmoil in airports across America as residents from the affected countries were held up.  Only an injunction by a federal judge overruled that part of the Trump order.

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This 1940 cartoon by Dr. Suess to protest the policy of not accepting Jews from Germany is poignant today.

It’s clear this order was drafted without thinking through all the consequences.  No guidance was given to states or airport security.   US military in Iraq were furious; not only does this affect interpreters and Iraqis that have been working with the US, but it increases anger at America and risks their safety.  There are only 5000 soldiers there in advisory roles, but the military was not consulted about the impact of this move.

This points back to Steve Bannon.  The man who pushed Trump to a bombastic, radical campaign style was the head of sensationalist (and not always trustworthy) Breitbart news, a right wing internet source.   He was known for wild claims and headlines, and people were shocked last year when Trump gave him a major role in his campaign.

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At Breitbart Bannon allowed white supremacist articles and ads be shown, advancing the term ‘alt right’ to describe his politics.

Now, though, he’s in the White House alongside Trump.  His elevation to the NSC came alongside a move to make the role of the Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff optional rather than required.  Senator John McCain harshly criticized both moves as putting a political operative ahead of the top military man in the White House.   He is a PR man, not an expert on foreign policy.   He has no business on the NSC, especially a larger role than the Chair of the Joint Chiefs!

It’s clear that Trump has put himself in Bannon’s hands.  It was Bannon, not Trump, behind the new executive order.  I suspect Bannon’s been the force advocating the silencing of government workers and agencies, and some of the questionable cabinet picks.  In fact, I think Bannon is the one calling the shots.   He knows how to play on Trump’s insecurities, and Trump likely credits him with his November victory.

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The alt right

This should worry everyone.   Trump isn’t a Hitler, he’s an insecure con man in way over his head.  Bannon, on the other hand, looks to start a global alt right movement, potentially connecting with far right parties in Europe in an effort to undermine the traditional conservatism of past decades.

The Republican party must not let Bannon and Trump hijack their party – he’s rejecting the core beliefs that have guided the GOP for decades.  But more important the protests must continue and turn into on going action.   The people can make sure Bannon/Trump don’t succeed.   This administration is not normal.  It is not conservative.  It does not reflect the values that made America great.

 

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Should Assad Stay?

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On January 26, 2011, around the same time the protests against Mubarak in Egypt began, the Arab Spring spread to Syria, with protests against Bashar Assad.  Assad’s regime is brutal.  It spies on its people, uses torture, and in 1982 Bashar’s father Hafez responded to protests by essentially destroying part of a city, the so-called Hama massacre.  At least 10,000 people were killed, but the Syrian government effectively kept any image or reporting of the incident silent.   You could do that in 1982.

By the end of 2011 the protests spread and Syria became enmeshed in a civil war.  The government had lashed out at the protests with what one analyst has called a “whack a mole” strategy, hoping to prevent the spread of dissent.   It didn’t work.  Instead, organized units of rebel forces emerged, and soon were confronting the Syrian government.   Believing that Assad would suffer the same fate as Qaddafi and Mubarak, the US lead an international call for Assad to step down.  It was only a matter of time, they believed.

Now it is 2017.   Assad is still in power, and his forces resurgent in the long civil war, thanks to Russian help.    Syria has become the scene of a human rights tragedy.  Should President Trump forget Assad’s brutality and past US support for the rebels, and work with Putin to at least bring stability?

If Assad stays, the Iranian-Syrian alliance will be strengthened, Iranian influence in the region will grow, and Iraq will be pushed into an even tighter alliance with Iran.   Russia will also have proven itself a regional power, while US influence will wane.   The Kurds will find their effort to expand Kurdistan from its base in Iraq stymied (for all practical purposes the Kurdish areas of Iraq have been self-ruled since 1994), and the Saudis will work with other gulf states to balance Iranian influence.

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Accepting Assad’s rule would mean accepting a regime that has killed more Syrians than ISIS, tortures, and engages in atrocities that are universally condemned.

At the same time, ISIS will certainly be weakened, if not defeated, as Iran, Turkey, Syria and Iraq oppose ISIS.  Perhaps there could be a modicum of regional stability if Assad could reach some deal with the non-ISIS rebels that allows the bloodshed to end without reprisals.

That certainly looks better than what we see now on the ground.  A tenuous cease fire, along with aid being bottled up.   Assad surviving, Russia and Iran resurgent, and the US losing clout would be yet the latest consequence of decisions made 15 years ago to go to war in Iraq and reshape the region in order to promote US interests and leadership.   That policy remains a complete and utter failure.  Ultimately, though, regimes like Assad’s are anachronisms, they are out of place in the 21st Century and cannot last.  The transformation of the Arab world will take decades, not years.

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