Archive for category Health Care

Obama Destined to be Remembered as a Great President

Destined to be ranked among the greatest US Presidents

Destined to be ranked among the greatest US Presidents

The right wing has been obsessed with doing all they can to vilify and attack Obama.   But if you pay attention these attacks are either broad and empty (personal attacks on him, his experience or motives) or simply wrong.   The right wing was all over Obama because Putin attacked Crimea, showing real ignorance about Russian interest and world affairs, for example.

My goal here is not to argue against the babble on talk radio or the right wing blogosphere, but point out that President Obama is amassing a record that all but assures that his Presidency will be remembered as not only a success, but one of the greatest.   The reasons full into four categories:  1)  Policy success, including fundamental changes in the nature of public policy; 2) A successful foreign policy, shifting US interests to adjust to new political realities while extricating the US from two painful wars; 3) Economic success, preserving through the deepest economic crisis since the great depression; and 4) Personal and cultural factors – who he is, and the shifting culture of the times.

Domestic Policy:   The White House was almost giddy as enrollments in Obamacare reached over 7 million, a number nobody thought they’d reach after the problems with the website roll out last year.   It is almost inconceivable that this law will be repealed – the cost and disruption of doing so would be immense, and it would create a massive health care crisis.    There will be reforms; once the GOP realizes the law is here to stay they’ll work on fixing problems in it rather than waging ideological jihad.  But President Obama did what Nixon, Carter, and Clinton all failed to do: achieve a major health care overall to expand coverage to tens of millions (ultimately) uninsured, and slow the rate of health care cost increases.

It took patience and persistent leadership, but President Obama claimed success this week as Obamacare enrollment hit the 7 million goal

It took patience and persistent leadership, but President Obama claimed success this week as Obamacare enrollment hit the 7 million goal

Obama has amassed a series of other major policy victories that often get neglected, but will shape the nature of US politics in the 21st Century.   He turned around the auto industry which stood on the brink of collapse in 2009.   He got an economic stimulus package passed that started creating jobs, including for the first time in decades an increase in manufacturing jobs.    Wall Street reform is major improvement on what we had before, and likely will protect the US from the kind of Wall Street induced crisis like that of 2008.  Relatedly, the recapitalization of banks, while controversial, avoided an entire collapse of the credit market in the US and allowed for a quicker recovery than I expected – I thought in 2008 we were looking at a decade before the economy would come back.

He repealed “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” and his justice department gave considerable support to the growing move to legalize gay marriage by recognizing such marriages at the federal level, being on the right side of an irreversible cultural shift.  He also worked to get the banks out of the student loan business, increase Pell grants, and make student loans easier and more accessible at a time when education is becoming more expensive.   Also under Obama’s stewardship the US became the world’s leading producer of natural gas and oil for the first time since the early 70s.

Other policies involve significant education reform, toughening fuel efficiency standards, major credit card reform, improved veterans benefits, food safety, an emphasis on nutrition that may be turning around the obesity epidemic among the youth, federal regulation of tobacco, expanded national park service, massive investment in green technology (which will pay benefits long after Obama leaves office), new sentencing guidelines, and more.   Obama has reshaped the policy landscape. That’s one reason the right is so beside itself hating him: he’s an effective leader that has altered the political environment and put the US on a fundamentally different path than had been the case six years ago.

At time when child obesity threatens both the health system and young people's future, Michelle Obama's focus on nutrition is a needed shift in thinking

At time when child obesity threatens both the health system and young people’s future, Michelle Obama’s focus on nutrition is a needed shift in thinking

Foreign Policy.   The US has undertaken a quiet but very successful shift in foreign policy, including military downsizing, the Asian pivot, support for nascent democratic movements in the Mideast, and an effective effort to collaborate on international financial regulations.   He ended the war in Iraq and is ending US involvement in Afghanistan, reoriented US missile defense, helped topple Gaddafi in Libya, and supported South Sudan independence.  Osama Bin Laden was eliminated, and al qaeda is a shadow of what it was in 2008.    Due to unprecedented cooperation between countries (even ones not exactly friendly with each other) on intelligence about terrorism, terrorism has gone from being a threat feared by Americans daily to just a nuisance.

For me, a scholar of international relations, Obama's foreign policy has been a remarkable success in that he turned around policy content and America's image in a way many Americans don't yet grasp.

For me, a scholar of international relations, Obama’s foreign policy has been a remarkable success in that he turned around policy content and America’s image in a way many Americans don’t yet grasp.

Perhaps most importantly by ending torture policies and having two very capable Secretaries of State – Hillary Clinton and John Kerry – US prestige and clout is at its highest point since the end of the Cold War.   President Obama is respected internationally, and has shown himself capable of engineering significant breakthroughs with Iran and – if reports are right – soon in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.   When people claim that Putin’s taking the Crimea is a failure of Obama, they are grasping at straws.  That is, as I noted, a sign of Putin’s weakness and desperation.   Obama has reinvigorated US international leadership.

Economic success.   When President Obama took office, the US was bleeding jobs, and the budget was out of control.   Now the deficit is far lower than anyone predicted (federal spending has grown much more slowly than during the Bush Administration), and more jobs have been created than during the entire Bush Administration when the US was experiencing a bubble economy. The economy looks set to take off with increased job creation this summer, meaning that the book ends of Obama’s Presidency will be an inherited economic crisis of immense proportions at the start, and a growing and revived economy by the end.

Job growth has been consistent and beyond levels during the Bush years; many economists expect increased job creation towards the end of 2014

Job growth has been consistent and beyond levels during the Bush years; many economists expect increased job creation towards the end of 2014

Finally, when the GOP tried to hold the US economy hostage on the debt ceiling, Obama starred them down, refused to bend, and ultimately the GOP was forced into a humiliating retreat, being blamed for a government shut down, a downgrade in the US credit rating, and playing Russian roulette with US jobs.   That was an example of the successful leadership that defines Obama’s stewardship of the economy.

Personal/cultural factors:  Although the right has tried to find one, Obama has had a clean and scandal-free Presidency.   He has shown himself to be a strong personal leader, using speeches, visits, and his own influence to guide policy.  He is, of course, the first black President, and reflects an America that is more cosmopolitan, tolerant, and diverse.   Just 20 years ago it would have been inconceivable that a black man named Barack Hussein Obama could win the Presidency.

The so-called Tea Party in the US, made up of mostly older white folk (my demographic), reflects shock at the scope of this change.  They believe they are losing America to some strange force which Obama – the black President with the funny name maybe born in Kenya – personifies.  He’s not “one of us,” he went to a radical church, he travels, he’s well educated, he’s not a good old boy like “W”. In that, Obama is indeed symbolic the emerging culture shift.   The process is just beginning, and Obama is destined to be associated with these changes.  He took office as the old order collapsed in an economic crisis and failed wars; he’ll leave office with the country revived and heading down a different path.  He symbolizes a pivot to a new direction for the 21st Century.

Just as most people now forget the attacks on Reagan by the left, or the vicious attacks on Clinton by the right – the two are both remembered fondly by most Americans – the attacks on Obama will fade from the collective memory.   Within ten or twenty years it’ll be clear that his Presidency was not only successful, but ranks alongside America’s greatest Presidents.


Chaos Prevails

Susan Collins, R-Maine

Susan Collins, R-Maine

Republicans and Democrats increasingly seem to be in separate worlds.   Reality is never objectively perceived “as it is.”  It is always interpreted through ones’ perspective, a prism of beliefs and past experiences.   Yet most people are convinced reality is as they perceive it, they believe they are being objective and clear, meaning that those who think differently are somehow flawed.   They may be stupid, dishonest, disingenuous, or have some kind of nefarious belief system.   The US political system depends on a smaller class of people, those who can understand diverse perspectives, and navigate to a position of common ground – even if it’s a option all can barely life with.

I’m not writing to praise Senator Collins’ political views or positions.  I agree with her on some things, disagree on others.  But I do praise the fact that she is one of those able to try to work with people of different views to craft solutions to problems – to have the intellectual capacity for multidimensional thinking, rather than the true believer mentality of the ideologues.

As I write this a wild circus is playing out in Washington DC.   As Senators Reid and McConnell, both who like Collins see past ideological cages, near a compromise, an angry house demands to pass a bill with no chance of support from the Senate or White House.  But as they plan for an evening vote, apparently they can’t come up with anything.   Confusion reigns!  Now it sounds like no vote will occur.

Boehner:  "Truth is we have no idea what we're doing, and haven't for the past three weeks!"  (Well, what he would say if under a spell to tell the truth)

Boehner: “Truth is we have no idea what we’re doing, and haven’t for the past three weeks!” (Well, what he would say if under a spell to tell the truth)

Reading the quotes of the Republican tea party Congressmen is like reading quotes from die hard communists during the Cold War.  They have their ideological world view, and anything not falling within it is, well, a ‘threat to freedom,’ ‘demolishes the Constitution’, or some such silliness.

Speaker Boehner, who is also able to bridge diverse perspectives, at this point has to find a way to balance an out of control House, the need to solve the problem, and the views from the Senate and White House.    He doesn’t appear up to the task – perhaps no one is.  It appears that the lunatics have taken over the asylum!

Consider David Vitter, (R-La)’s defense of the shutdown:  “Approximately 15,000 EPA employees are furloughed, making it less likely fake CIA agents at EPA will be ripping off the taxpayer.”    Sure – while people in the Pentagon are holding food drives for furloughed employees, Vitter sees the government as some pack of demons.

Consider Collins:  “I would encourage people, my colleagues on both sides of the aisle and in both the Senate and the House, to take a look at the proposal that we’ve been working on.  I also think that the Senate needs to act first, and that there’s more chance of an agreement being reached in the Senate and we need to lead.”   You can just hear the tea party folk hissing at her “betrayal of principle.”

But Collins is right about what it takes.   The Democrats made their point earlier in the week when they resurrected demands to roll back the sequester.  If the Republicans want to “negotiate” before opening the government or raising the debt limit, the negotiation can’t be from “the status quo” to closer to where they are – that’s hostage taking.  The negotiation has to be from the Democratic starting point, which is precisely what Reid demonstrated!

From there Susan Collins got involved and crafted a bipartisan plan.  It didn’t pass muster, but Reid and McConnell took over from there, and it appeared we were on track to get an agreement.  It would give the GOP a face saving out, but the House Republicans would have fought a quixotic cause, turning the country against them and making the tea party look like a different kind of crazy.

The Tea Party - a different kind of crazy

The Tea Party anthem album

Simply, blinded by ideology they felt justified making outrageous demands, believing they were RIGHT and fighting on PRINCIPLE!  They scoff at those who compromise as somehow “compromising principles,” not recognizing that it is a kind of psychological malady to think one needs the world to adhere to his or her principles in order to be true to them.   Then as defeat became inevitable and the scope of the damage they’ve done to their party, themselves, their movement and perhaps the country became clear, they veered off in numerous directions.

So tonight meetings continue.   Susan Collins is working behind the scenes, still a major force.  McConnell and Reid are talking – all recognize the scope of the problem.   Still, the real issue is not the debt ceiling or shutdown, but how could we let such a dysfunctional group of Congresspeople veer the country so close to catastrophe?   How could it be that people like Louie Gohmert, who said that President Obama should be impeached if the country defaults (even if his party is the cause of the default) – he’s the same guy who said terrorists were having babies in the US so the babies could commit terrorist acts in 18 years and that John McCain supports al qaeda – can be as influential as Collins?

Republican Pete King (R-NY) put it best:  “This party is going nuts…Even if this bill passed tonight, what would it have done?  After shutting down the government for two and a half weeks, laying off 800,000 people, all the damage we caused, all we would end up doing was taking away health insurance from congressional employees. That’s it? That’s what you go to war for? That’s what we shut down the United States government for?”

I predict they’ll find a way out and pass an agreement that the House will have to swallow.   More important for our future is to elect people with the insight to recognize that our system welcomes political conflict as long as the participants are able to recognize the legitimacy of diverse opinions.   Because if the tea party mentality takes root – and a similar way of extremist thinking grows on the left – our Republic will be on a downward spiral.


Why Obama Must Not Negotiate


House Republicans are miffed that the President refuses to negotiate with them about the government shut down.   “He’s willing to talk with Iran, why not us,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell bemoaned.   Yet the truth of the matter is that there is nothing to negotiate.  For the good of the political process, for the sake of future Presidents Republican and Democratic, and for the country, the President must remain resolute.

The Republicans are trying to gut or delay the Affordable Care Act, and using a threat to shut down the government as a means of doing so.  That is, a group of people do not like a law that was passed a few years ago, and are threatening the entire country’s economy and well being in order to try to stop that law.   That’s not how you do it.

In a Democratic Republic, if you don’t like a law you make the case to the public.   You get your people elected, and then you change or rescind the law.   You do it through a constitutional process whereby the House and Senate vote, confer, and then pass a bill.  The President can sign or veto it.  Congress can override the veto if they have the votes.

Repealing and replacing Obamacare was a key component of Romney's failed Presidential bid

Repealing and replacing Obamacare was a key component of Romney’s failed Presidential bid

In this case, the 2012 election had Obamacare as a main component of the campaign.   Candidate Romney vowed to rescind or at least dramatically alter the act if elected, the President vowed to maintain it.   The votes were counted and the President won by a large margin.  The Democrats gained seats in the Senate.   And though Republicans took the majority in the House, more votes for the House went to Democrats than Republicans.

If it becomes possible for a minority to get their way and undercut laws simply by threatening to shut down the government, a horrible precedent will be set.   Rather than letting the democratic process operate, dangerous and destructive games of chicken will become common place.   Today it may be the GOP and the Affordable Care Act, but sometime in the future the Democrats might threaten to do the same to stop changes in Social Security.

It’s even worse than that.   If the Speaker of the House allowed a free vote on conscience, the government shutdown would be averted.  A number of Republicans disagree with the extremist approach being taken.  But they are being silenced by a large minority, which has not only stymied the legislative process, but put the world economy at risk.

Whatever one’s view on Obamacare, there should be agreement that blackmail and threats to the very fabric of our country are not the way to oppose it.   A case in point: on October 1, the first day that exchanges were up to sell insurance for Obamacare, lots of glitches and problems arose.  The GOP could use that in their favor to argue against Obamacare.  Instead those stories were under the radar as everyone focused on the shutdown.

I’m not saying the glitches are truly a reason to oppose Obamacare, only that the GOP should be focusing on substance to make their case before the 2014 election rather than playing Russian roulette with the economy and the jobs of nearly a million federal workers.

Every parent learns that giving into bad behavior means it will become more frequent

Every parent learns that giving into bad behavior means it will become more frequent

Today is a gorgeous day in Maine, and one of the most beautiful parks in the US, Acadia National Park, is closed thanks to the fact Congress can’t do its job.   When a young child wants to watch TV and a parent says no, often the child throws a tantrum.   If the parent gives in, then the child learns that tantrums work, and will more frequently and more vigor go ballistic to get his way.  If the parent holds firm and there are negative consequences for the tantrum, the child soon learns that tantrums don’t work and it’s better to follow the rules.

The tea party wing of the GOP is throwing a collective tantrum.  To give in would assure that shutdowns, crises and other threats to our stability become more frequent – the tactic will have worked.   The President cannot let that happen.


Fear and the Tea Party

“If there is a price to be paid for this, we will recover from a government shutdown, whether it’s a day, a week or two weeks … something will get resolved, we’ll recover from that as a country.  It’s a temporary inconvenience for a lot of people. But if Obamacare is ever implemented, we will never recover from that as a nation. We can never be a free people again.”  – Rep. Steve King (R – Iowa)

Steve King (R-Iowa) - definitely not to be confused with Maine's Stephen King!

Steve King (R-Iowa) – definitely not to be confused with Maine’s Stephen King!

Hyperbole is common in politics, but “we can never be a free people again”?   Really?

Every other industrialized state has a national health care system of some sort.   A few have single payer systems run by the government, but most have some kind of mixed system.   A comparison of diverse systems shows strengths and weaknesses of each, but the bottom line is that making sure everyone gets health care does not endanger freedom.  Quite the opposite!

When in the US you have 50 million uninsured, high levels of medical cost induced bankruptcy, and many poor not getting care because they fear collection agencies, we have a problem.    Add to that the fact that health care costs nearly 18% of GDP (compared to 8-10% in most other industrialized states – about 13% in Switzerland) it’s obvious that something has to be done.

The US health care system compares poorly with many others

The US health care system compares poorly with many others, but is by far the most expensive

So we have real problems with health care in America.   We pay more, don’t get more, and leave many people uncovered and scared to access care.    Now, perhaps Obamacare isn’t the best plan, but this radical “hostage taking” approach supported by tea party folk like Senators Cruz, and Lee and a variety of people in Congress makes no sense.

Instead of making their case to the public and hoping to get a Republican majority in the Senate and perhaps a Republican President in 2016, they’re acting like terrorists threatening to shut down the government and have the country go into default if they don’t get their way to stop or delay ‘Obamacare.’   That only makes sense if they fear that once implemented the system will work well and the public will like it.   Otherwise, they’d be smarter to let it fail on its own and then say “I told you so.”   At that point they could reform it or gut it, they’d have the political winds at their backs.   Their biggest fear seems to be that maybe it’ll work and become popular!

Or maybe it isn’t rational.   King’s quote seems over the top; wild rhetoric is usually a sign of emotion.   I believe that within the tea party and among people like Rep. King there is an ideological world view that says that America is becoming something different than what it was and what they think it “should be.”

Tea party support has dipped to 22%, a new low. Most Americans do not share that vision.

Tea party support has dipped to 22%. Most Americans do not share that vision.

So what should it be?   The tea party seems to have a romantic view of the 1980s.  Reagan was President, whites were the clear majority, social conservatism was on the rise, and the US was the dominant world power.   That is the world they knew and felt comfortable within.  Now, the world is strange.  A black man named Barack Hussein Obama is President.   The US fiasco in Iraq has shown the limits of American power in a post-Cold War multi-polar world.  The financial collapse of 2008, built on 30 years of growing debt and government deregulation destroyed the myth that somehow America’s economy was stronger than others in the West.   Gay marriage and changing social mores often shock them – as does the fact that changing demographics means minorities have a much stronger voice in the politics of the country.

It’s not just America that’s changed, but the world is changing.  Globalization is weakening sovereignty and creating interdependencies at a rapid pace.   The information revolution caused by the internet makes borders less relevant and democratizes knowledge, making old political practices obsolete.   The spread of weapons of mass destruction and the capacity of terrorists to deliver deadly blows undermines old military tactics.  Indeed, warfare of the future will likely be fundamentally different than in the past, military power isn’t what it used to be.

The tea party represents those who fear this new world.   That explains King’s hyperbole.  Fear.   The changes taking place threaten the core of what he’s used to, and thus he’s afraid his values will be in jeopardy.   He can’t truly believe Obama care will mean we can never be a free people, it’s part of a response to what they consider a broader assault on what they think America should be.

Fear also explains the antipathy towards Obama.   He represents and incarnates all that they see going wrong with the US.   A black man with a foreign sounding name, inexplicably getting elected to two terms, leading the country down a scary “socialist” path.    Obama is an establishment Democrat – the left wing of the Democratic party is upset with his centrism.  His health care plan was a compromise, less obtrusive than Nixon’s plan back in the early seventies.   There is nothing new or radical about Obama – except that he’s President in changing times, and the changes scare them.

Ironically, the changes they fear will be hastened if they shut down government or cause America to default.   That will further weaken and divide the polity, and despite their belief that they represent “real America,” their views are increasingly on the margin and will not shape the future.   But right now they have enough people in Congress to try to take the economy hostage and do real damage.   Hopefully Republican leaders like Boehner will have the intestinal fortitude to stand up to them.  Those most hurt by the tea party are conservatives trying to establish a vision of what conservatism must be about in these changing times.


Democratic Optimism

The tone of the Democratic National Convention’s third night was clear: optimism.    Optimism about America, about the future, and about President Obama’s re-election.

That wasn’t the tone of the Republican convention.   Theirs was one where they said a dark and dreary future awaited America if Barack Obama were to be re-elected.    Ultimately, optimism is why the DNC may indeed provide the bounce for Obama that Romney did not get from his convention.

To be sure, both conventions did deal in fear.   Women were told to fear what America would be like under a Romney Presidency.   Latinos were reminded that Mitt had called for “self-deportation” and threatened to undo the Obama decision to allow “dreamers” to stay — children born or brought here young and while lacking documentation have never known another home.    The middle class was told that a Republican country would take from them and hinder their chances in order to give the wealthy more tax cuts.   Jobs would go off shore, the chance to create a sustainable economy would be harmed under a Romney-Ryan administration.   All those fears, often exaggerated, were on display in Democratic speeches.

However, unlike the Republicans, that wasn’t the taste the convention left in its aftermath.   The exuberant optimism of Joe Biden saying “don’t bet against the American people,” rang louder.    While fears of what Republicans would do were stated very clearly, there was never a claim that electing Romney would bring the downfall of the American dream.   The argument was pitched positively – President Obama represents the best hope for the American dream.

Ronald Reagan’s optimism was contagious, and was a key reason so many people who disagreed with him on issues still wanted him as President.

There was a time when the Republicans seemed to own optimism.   In the wake of a decade of crisis – defeat in Vietnam, Watergate, energy crises, the hostage crisis and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Ronald Reagan’s optimism was his key to success.  His message was simple: despite the fact things looked bleak for the US – that our best days may be behind us – our values will prevail.   Never bet against the American people.

This year, the Democrats own that message.   The Republicans have chosen to rely on economic pessimism to lead voters to choose to give up on Obama as unable to fix the problem.   What they forgot is that Ronald Reagan did not win because Americans gave up on Jimmy Carter.   Ronald Reagan won because he offered change – a coherent view of what could be done differently, with a strong sense that the first job would be to have Americans believe in themselves again.   That optimism was key to his appeal.

Obama and Biden both struck nationalist themes, again stealing territory from the GOP

Beyond that, the Democrats moved in on GOP territory in other ways.    While Mitt Romney failed to mention “the troops” at all, perhaps not wanting to arouse memories of Iraq and George W. Bush’s wars, the importance of veterans and the military was a theme of the convention.   Michelle Obama and Jill Biden trumpeted their work on behalf of military families.   Biden talked about his son Beau, and the President spoke deferentially about the duty of a country to care to those who have served to protect and defend it.

The convention also had a strong nationalist tinge, something that at times left many Democrats a tad uncomfortable.    Yet it served two purposes.   GOP rhetoric has often hinted that Obama is too internationalist and distant from American values.   Indeed, for many that’s the danger he represents, that he’s leading us to an America far different than than the one we grew up in.   The Democrats pivoted that to an argument that the world is indeed changing, but President Obama is responding in a manner shaped by quintessential American values.    Tied to the idea Romney is hiding tax secrets and off shore accounts, the Democrats have made clear that if there is a debate about who is more “true to America,” they’ll not stand down.

Finally, the Democrats embraced their own liberalism with a confident gusto that surprised some pundits.   They didn’t limit talk about Obamacare to a few lines buried in speeches shifting attention elsewhere.   They owned it.   They defended it, and they defended the core progressive ideal of government needing to play a powerful role to help provide equal opportunity.   They made an impassioned pitch for seeing progressive ideals as the true core values of the country, with the Ayn Rand like rugged individualism of the GOP out of sync with our community spirit.   They embraced clearly and strongly support for gay marriage and abortion rights.   They weren’t ashamed of being liberal.

Whether through politicians or stars like Eva Longoria, who was arguably more effective than Clint Eastwood, the Democrats didn’t back down from their core values.

The Democrats also rejected the notion that their goal is to create dependence or that Democrats don’t value success.  Indeed, in speech after speech they provided examples of poor folk working hard to create a better future, and stressed that the value of a job is not just the paycheck one earns.  Rather, the dignity one gets from having a job, and the example one can give to his or her children is the true value of being employed.

Will it work?   Will this convention catapult the Democrats to a clear lead and perhaps put the House in play?   After a lackluster Republican convention will Americans recall the hopes of 2008 and believe that the GOP offers simply a return to the policies that created this mess?

That’s where the Republicans botched their message.   By not setting a clear alternative to both the Democrats and their own policies before 2008, they come off as having  nothing new to offer.   It’s as if a guy weighing 320 goes on a diet to get down to a healthy weight of 230.   After a year he’s at 295 and still fat.   So he decides to give up exercise and better eating in order to go back to the old lifestyle because the new one hasn’t worked.    Maybe the new one isn’t working fast enough, but the old lifestyle is sure to fail!   Not giving a clear alternative left the Democrats an opening to say the GOP would go back to Bush era policies.

My gut, biased as it is for President Obama, tells me that this will work.   The Democrats needed to make their case clearly, optimistically, and without apology stressing how their vision is a truly American vision.    But even if it doesn’t work, even if the campaign spending by the Romney camp and continuing economic gloom allow the Republicans to have another big year, Obama and the Democrats were right to put forth a forceful and powerful message.   If they’re going to lose, they need to lose while standing up for principle, not trying to avoid politically risky moves.

Agree or not, President Obama did not shy away from the principles of his party

That’s another thing that helped Reagan – while the Democrats in the 80s were struggling to define who they were, no one doubted Reagan had a set of core values.   Now that’s reversed.   While the Republicans seem torn between the tea party hardliners and a Mitt Romney who even Republican faithful admit seems to have no core, the Democrats are united behind a President who lays out clear principles.    Just as the Democrats attacked Reagan’s principles in the 80s, without a clear alternative the public judged their argument unpersuasive.   Now it’s the Republicans without a clear alternative, and that could be the point that tips this election to the President.


What is Independence?

Independence Day.  The 4th of July.  A day of parades, fireworks, picnics, games and celebrations.  I remember growing up in Sioux Falls, SD, spending a day at “Westward Ho” playing games, enjoying a greased watermelon in the pool contest, swimming and at night going out in the country to shoot fireworks.

Fireworks in South Dakota was fun.   We’d drive out into the country, find a gravel road and locate a spot to shoot off a bunch of fireworks we’d bought at the big firework store on the edge of town.   South Dakota had (and I believe still has) very lax fireworks laws.  I recall as a kid lighting cones, roman candles, firecrackers, and a bunch of other things.   My dad would give me the punk (a slow burning small stick used to light fireworks), my mom worried that I’d burn myself, and I felt proud to be old enough to light the fuses.  By the time I was 12 I had taken over virtually all the lighting duties!

Later in high school and college July 4th meant 18 hour shifts at Village Inn Pizza.   I didn’t have to work so long, but I liked the idea of getting so many hours in one day so I volunteered to run the store all day.    Being in charge I’d try to make the day fun for the workers, though it was often pretty busy.   The Assistant Manager was always grateful – he was supposed to run the day shift!

That’s me with the pizza pan in hand (turning it so sauce spreads across the whole pie), back in 1981 running a shift at VIPP! Those were the days…

This year in Maine we went to Jay for fireworks last night, and today in Farmington there was a typical small New England town parade.  Some antique tractors, people representing companies and churches driving through town on makeshift floats, and local political candidates/parties dressing up, shaking hands, and of course, handing out candy.   Tootsie rolls, suckers, taffy and other candy thrown to the kids on the curb who rush out to grab it.

From the Daily Bulldog (an online Farminton newspaper), the 2012 Independence Day parade in Farmington Maine

The parade included calves for the kids to pet, a couple small bands, youth organizations, and at the end a line of eight firetracks from local communities, blazing their sirens in turn to the delight of the kids.   The firetrucks signify the end of the parade.  It was rainy, but the parade went on undaunted – and most of the time the rain was so light people put away their umbrellas.    The community is out, people chatting with each other…you can buy some strawberry shortcake or hot dogs (only $1), and it seems timeless.   One doubts the parade was much different thirty years ago or will be thirty years from now.

So what does this day mean?   Everyone knows what it signifies – the day the United States declared its independence from Great Britain.   But while the Declaration of Independence states vague ideals – all people are created equal, we have inalienable rights, and we should not be governed without the consent of the governed – what those ideals mean and how they are to be implemented are unclear.     When the Constitution was ratified 13 years later it still allowed slavery, women couldn’t vote and since then independence – freedom – has been an on going project.

Another photo from the Daily Bulldog:

To me independence day is a recognition not of a past event or ideal, but of the on going process of building true freedom.   All may be created equal, but some are born in poverty and others in plenty.    We fought to end slavery, to give the vote to women, to create civil rights for blacks, and now to provide full rights to homosexuals.   We worked to create public education so all could have opportunity.   We’re trying now to figure out how to make health care something all Americans enjoy, how to expand economic opportunity, and how to handle an economic crisis thirty years in the making.

There is something this day does not represent: selfish individualism.    Kurt Anderson may have a point in the New York Times today that the problems we face come from the triumph of radical individualism over our sense of community and shared duties.   Freedom was once an ideal that had a context – we are free in a community, our freedom is connected with duties and obligations to those around us.

Now it seems that many people see freedom simply as a desire to be able to do whatever they want regardless of the consequences to the rest of the community.   If a CEO at a financial firm can earn $25 million bonuses thanks to bogus mortgage backed CDOs, hey, that’s fine.  So what if it brings down the economy, the market decides they get a bonus and who are they to question the market (especially when they can manipulate it!)

But it’s not just the bigwigs, it’s all of us.   I know that my thinking is quite often very selfish.   Yes, that’s human nature, but it’s also human nature to be connected with others.   Freedom is the proper balance of ones’ own individual desires and interests and the sense of duty to the community.    Ignore the community and things start to fall apart and the capacity to achieve ones desires and goals becomes more difficult.

Farmington has been a community since the late 1700s…I’m not sure what year this picture dates from.

That’s our challenge now – independence means rediscovering the balance between selfish pursuit of whatever we want and the recognition that we need to care about our environment, community and neighbors.   We’re all hurt when any American goes hungry, lacks adequate health care, is denied equal opportunity, is unfairly put in jail or in any way mistreated.

In that sense the parade today in Farmington – a community coming together – reflects what we need more of.   And it’s already beginning.   People are starting to focus on eating local food, buying from area merchants, and working together to maintain that sense of community that has traditionally defined American life.    Strong communities will yield a strong country.   Crass individualism and selfishness will tear us apart.


The GOP’s Epic Fail

Since the Republicans took the majority in 2011 House Oversight Committee Chair Darrell Issa has been investigating everything he could, hoping to find corruption or a scandal in the Obama Administration.    So far, they have found little to nothing.

However, they’ve been seduced by wishful thinking about a botched Justice Department investigation called “Fast and Furious.”    Programs to track guns (so called gun walking) started back during the Bush Administration and were designed to generate information about Mexican drug cartels.     It ended when it became clear that some of the guns had found their way into criminal hands and had been used in crimes against innocents, perhaps even a US border guard.

That’s it.   Fortune magazine has investigated this extensively and concluded there was never any intent to have the guns fall into the wrong hands.   The Justice Department is conducting a thorough internal investigation.  Congress has also found no evidence of wrong doing.   But conspiracy theories on the far right came up with truly absurd claims — that this was an attempt to promote gun control by increasing violent crime, or that somehow the Justice Department was in collusion with Mexican drug cartels.

There is no evidence for any of those claims.   When the problems in the program came to light it was ended and ultimately thousands of documents were given the House Oversight committee.    It should have been enough; in fact, when the Committee Chair Darrell Issa said he wanted more, Attorney General Eric Holder obliged.   When it became clear that Issa was simply fishing, Holder refused to give over documents that deal with internal White House discussions, likely between Obama and Holder.  As President Bush (and all recent Presidents) have done in similar circumstances, President Obama declared executive privilege.

So why hold Holder in contempt – President Obama is the one declaring executive privilege?    It’s pure political theater.   The NRA and others who want a conspiracy theory to be true kept putting pressure on Issa to dig more, even though nothing, absolutely nothing, had been found to indicate deeper problems.   Beyond that, the GOP’s political wing hopes to at least create the illusion of scandal to help diminish President Obama’s reputation and increase their chances of defeating him.    The NRA even announced they would be “scoring” the contempt vote, pressuring a small number of moderate Democrats in conservative districts to join in the contempt vote.

I believe this was part of a clear GOP strategy to use Thursday as the start of a major assault on President Obama, with the ambitious goal of completely redefining his Presidency.   Consider the tiing:

At 10:00 Thursday the Supreme Court was set to rule on the Affordable Care Act.   Intrade gave it a 75% chance of being overturned, and pundits left and right seemed resigned to or energized by the fact it seemed almost certain that the court would reject the law.   It became entrenched conventional wisdom that the law was all but dead.  Rush Limbaugh said that Republicans should “spike the football” when it’s overturned, and a lot of conservatives were eager to hear the ruling.

Here’s how the GOP plan was supposed to operate:

1.  The Court would announce that the individual mandate was unconstitutional, thereby dooming the entire law because without the mandate it could not be funded.   They’d quickly seize on this as a failure of the President on his keystone issue, arguing that Obama can now claim no lasting accomplishment and making his first term a failure.

2.   The House would then hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt, the first time ever that the House and an Attorney General could not negotiate to settle an issue like this.    On top of the health care ruling, it would appear as if the Obama Administration was imploding.   This double whammy would be a stepping stone to an all out attack on the President, heaping ridicule, scorn and faux pity on Obama who would be painted as having not been up to the task of being leading the country.

3.   This day would mark the beginning of a redefinition of the Obama Presidency from being an historic activist one to a failed and incompetent one, setting up a victory for Mitt Romney and the GOP in the fall.

Since January 20, 2009 the goal of the GOP has been, as Senator Mitch McConnell said, to deny President Obama re-election.   They’ve refused to cooperate on major issues, pushed the country to the brink over a debt ceiling increase, and have increased the scope of partisanship in Washington.    This isn’t to say the Democrats weren’t often doing the sae thing, but compare how often the Democrats had been willing to work with President Bush to the way the GOP has dealt with Obama.    The difference is striking.  The Republicans in Washington had power and they lost it.   They want it back.    They can taste it.

McConnell explicitly stated that the number one goal of the GOP was to deny Obama re-election. Rather than work with him, they hoped to deny him accomplishments and then defeat him.

No doubt the talking points had been handed out; the assault on the President was about to begin.    Then incredibly one conservative Washington insider proved above politics: Chief Justice John Roberts.   Suddenly the joy on the right turned to anger, depression and shock as so-called Obamacare was ruled constitutional.    Obama emerged triumphant.

The contempt vote against Holder took place in this context but it was nothing like they had imagined it would be.   The Democrats staged a major walk out, and pundits decried the politicization of the issue and the grandstanding of Chairman Issa, who achieves nothing real by this vote.   At best it could make it to the courts and take months to get resolved, but most likely it just goes nowhere.   Rather than make the Obama administration look incompetent, the result was self-inflicted damage to the GOP.

Democrats walk out rather than vote on the contempt charges against Holder, reinforcing the idea it was a purely political vote.

The events of June 28th represent a defeat for the GOP.   Their efforts to paint Obama as a failed or ineffective President have so far fallen short.   Obama remains the favorite, is ahead in the polls, and has solid leads in important swing states.    This was to be their shot at seriously wounding the President before the campaign starts in earnest.     Few think Mitt Romney can win by enticing people to vote for Romney; they hope to convince people to vote against Obama.

The election is still months away and much can happen.    But the way events Thursday played themselves out had to be very depressing for Romney camp insiders and gives the President a tailwind going into July.


The Right Ruling

Thursday the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the Affordable Care Act, nicknamed “Obamacare” is indeed constitutional.   In so doing, they rejected  a judicial activism that would severely limit the democratic power of the people.

The ruling is causing confusion.   Because the individual mandate (everyone has to buy insurance) is permissible due to the ability of the government to tax, some are claiming that this amounts to a huge tax increase.    That’s false – people will be buying insurance, not paying a tax.   Those who refuse to buy insurance will pay penalties.   However for many Republicans, convinced by oral arguments that overturning the act was an almost sure thing (intrade had the likelihood at 75%), it’s an attempt to walk back the celebratory tone they’d been taking.

This also ensures that the debate in the run up to the 2012 election will be more serious than it has been.   Until now the GOP has been simply opposing the law, saying they had ‘free market’ alternatives that will ‘increase choice.’    A close look shows that they evade most of the controversial issues.   The emphasis has been on creating ire over Obamacare and hoping the Supreme Court would do the dirty work and strike down what will be very difficult for them to repeal.

House Speaker John Boehner will have to confront difficult issues in the health care debate.

With the Supreme Court saying that this is for Congress and the President to work out – Justice Roberts correctly noted that it is not the job of the Court to rule on the wisdom of the law – the politicians will ultimately have to get into the nitty gritty of the law.   The Democrats will point out all of the positive aspects of the law and force Republicans to embrace some aspects of it.   Republicans will have to confront the health care problems that face the country and offer plausible solutions.

In a perfect world, one could hope that such debate would yield good ideas from both sides of the aisle and a mutual willingness to improve the law.   In the world we have that’s unlikely.   The worst result is that a massive amount of money is spent to manipulate public opinion and drown out the serious side of the debate, saving politicians from having to deal with reality.

While that is certainly possible, this issue might defy that trend.   If President Obama is re-elected, the Republicans will have to accept that a repeal is unlikely, and shift towards trying to make it work better.  If Governor Romney is elected then his job will be more difficult.   The Senate is likely to block an all out rejection of the law, and those helped by the popular provisions will put immense pressure on the GOP not to “throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

I suspect that in either case we’ll have a similar result.   The two parties will recognize that the US now has a health care system that aspires to universal coverage and tries to contain costs.   Information about what works and what isn’t working will guide reforms to the act.    As with social security and medicare, over time it will be taken as natural to have a health care system; the biggest hurdle was the Supreme Court.

CNN’s initial coverage took a tidbit they heard early in the opinion – that the individual mandate was not allowed by the Commerce Clause – and mistakenly informed the world that the mandate was struck down, causing people to compare this with the early headline saying “Dewey defeats Truman.”

CNN’s “oops” moment pictured above was caused in part by the widespread belief that the act would be ruled unconstitutional.   Most pundits were almost certain of the result, especially after the government seemed to do very poorly in oral arguments.   But oral arguments rarely give a good glimpse of what the result will be, and on an issue like this oral arguments can be virtually irrelevant.    The Justices have intense discussions to try to get the law right.

The most important aspect of this ruling is that the Supreme Court refused to interpose itself into an important political decision that should be left to the people and their representatives.   This is the kind of issue that we as a society have to work through politically, and the Court should allow that.    I’ve often agreed with conservatives who oppose judicial activism from the left; judicial activism is also wrong from the right.

Justice Roberts sent a signal today that while he has a conservative ideology, he wants to protect the Supreme Court’s integrity and reputation.   I hope that this means that his court will refrain from judicial activism and leave most issues in the hands of the democratic institutions.    There are important exceptions, of course, involving fundamental rights and equality under the law.    But today Justice Roberts rose above politics and proved that he understands his role as Chief Justice.


There’s Something About Julia

The Republicans  are shooting themselves in the foot in response to an Infographic on the Obama website that demonstrates how Obama’s programs compare with Romney’s in the life of a fictional woman named Julia.

It starts at age three, when she gets to participate in a head start program to help prepare her for Kindergarten.   Romney’s plan would cut Head Start by 200,000 spots.   The idea behind Head Start is to identify children who might fail to make the grade in school and give them support so they can succeed, this usually involves children in poverty or who have some developmental problems.

Next Julia benefits from quality public education and prepares her SAT.   Romney, we are told, wants to cut spending in public education.   Julia then goes to college, with her family benefiting from a tax credit and Julia earning a Pell grant.   Romney wants to eliminate the tax credit and cut Pell grants.   (To be fair, a lot of people qualifying for Pell grants may not benefit from the tax credit.)

At 22 she needs major surgery and luckily has her health care covered.   This would not happen if the Republicans repeal Obamacare.   Having known students whose educational path was severely rocked by such health problems (some never finished), this is definitely a very real possibility.

She then goes to work and gets a job as a web designer, helped by the Lilly Ledbetter fair pay act.   I suspect web designer positions are not those which suffer large gender pay gaps, but OK.     She also benefits from lower interest rates on her student loans (Romney, the site says, would have interest rates double).     And of course her insurance covers birth control and preventive care.  As much as the GOP harps on “religious freedom,” the idea that insurance might cover viagra but not contraception or preventive women’s health makes this a winning issue for the Democrats.

She has good pre-natal care when she has a child.   As a web designer she might have good insurance anyway, but a lot of women now don’t get that care, which increases infant mortality and adds to the burden of poverty.   Romney would repeal Obamacare, which guarantees such coverage.   When she’s 37 her son starts Kindergarten, benefiting from better funded schools than the GOP budget that would supposedly take money away from public education.

When she’s 42 the entrepreneur mom wants to start her own web design business.   She qualifies for a small business loan, a program Romney’s budget would supposedly cut by 20%.     When she retires she has medicare and full coverage, rather than the voucher the Republicans support, which Obama’s camp says would add over $6000 per year to the cost.   In retirement her social security benefits are solid (the GOP, the ad claims, wants to cut them by 40%).   The final slide concludes:  From cracking down on gender discrimination in health care costs to fighting for equal pay, President Obama is standing up for women throughout their lives.

What’s interesting is how this reflects the dynamic of the campaign.

First, the Obama campaign knows it has an advantage with women and wants to keep it.   Gaffes like the Hillary Rosen remark have very short half lives, real policy differences endure.    Second, note who Julia is — a web designer who becomes an entrepreneur raising a child.  Single, married or divorced?   We don’t know, it presumably doesn’t matter.   This is an “every woman” kind of life, but Julia is also a hard working business woman – no leeching welfare queen.

The emphasis on health care is also telling.   The Obama team hasn’t been talking alot about Obamacare (except to take ownership of the label the Republicans slapped on it), but is trying to subtly send messages that get people to like what it does.    Given how bad the US system was in comparison to every other industrialized state, this should be a winning argument for the Democrats if they frame it well.

But where the Republicans show their weakness is the knee jerk response by many on the right.   Pundits and even the RNC jumped on it as a “socialistic” narrative of a woman needing the ‘nanny state’ to succeed.   This, they claim, is Obama’s vision, success only through big government handouts.    Typical is a response from Michelle Malkin:    “I will read Life of #Julia to my kids to show them how NOT to live their lives – tethered to Nanny State.”

Really, an enterpreneur mom is ‘tethered to the nanny state?’   But that’s not the point.   That kind of response is red meat for the core Republican constituency, it’s the kind of reply you’d make in a GOP primary campaign.   People ready to buy that “socialist nanny state” rhetoric have already decided long ago against Obama.    That kind of rhetoric helps the Democratic narrative that the Republicans are ‘out of touch ideologues’ so focused on abstract ideology that they forget real people.

Another reaction is to say things like “Julia will have no job in the Obama economy.”   OK, it’s hard getting jobs now, though the economic debate is a murky one since Obama inherited an economy in collapse and most people don’t blame him for its condition.

But the GOP could approach it another way.   They could say the facts are wrong and otherwise ignore it.   There are many claims about what Romney would do that are indirect at best.     They come from statements made in the primary campaign (when Romney was trying to prove he was a ‘true’ conservative) supporting things like the Paul Ryan budget, not from actual Romney campaign positions.     The point is that much of what Julia gets are things that Romney would not cut.

By calling the programs listed ‘socialist’ or ‘nanny state,’ it makes it sound like Republicans think prenatal care, spending on schools, and small business loans are things the GOP opposes.   The GOP response makes it seem like the Republicans oppose any assistance, thereby advancing the Democratic narrative.    Again, they seem to have forgotten that the general election has a different audience than primary season.

Finally, if I were in the RNC I’d just ignore this.   It’s an infographic on a campaign website.   Big deal.   The Republicans already have a problem with women’s issues, and the more this gets talked about the less time people spend on issues the Republicans want to talk about.   By making it the ‘subject of the day’ and taking it seriously, they elevated Julia’s importance and her efficacy.

The GOP just can’t help but obsess on Julia

The way the RNC and conservative pundits have botched their reaction to this shows a fundamental weakness of the Romney camp in this election cycle.    They’re clumsy at messaging and they’re reacting to the Obama campaign rather than guiding the discourse.    Or maybe there’s just something about Julia.   Maybe she’s just too enthralling to ignore!


Male and Female

Watch that Youtube video.   It’s only a couple minutes long.  It’s a powerful poem by Lauren Zuniga to the Oklahoma state legislature concerning their efforts to force women to get ultra sounds or other things before having an abortion.

This post isn’t about abortion or the Oklahoma legislature.   What this poem really symbolizes is how little empathy and understanding we men often have for the life experiences of women.

Men often complain about how mistreated they are, especially white men.   They complain that affirmative action leads to reverse discrimination, that women get better treatment and that somehow white males are victims of a wave of political correctness.  That’s utter nonsense.   Not only are white males still disproportionately wealthy and powerful, but very few ever suffer reverse discrimination.   Sometimes if a woman gets a job males wanting the job will all think that it should have been them, but in the world of discrimination and victimization, white males suffer very, very little.

But it’s deeper than that.   The reality of how different life is for men than women really hit me when I was in grad school, working late in the computer lab at the University of Minnesota.  It was 10:30 and a female student was getting ready to go, and asked if anyone else was leaving.  Someone was, in ten minutes or so.   She asked if he could walk with her to the parking ramp.   Simply, she didn’t want to be alone on that walk.

That concern would never have occurred to me.   I would walk home, sometimes through sketchy sections of downtown, pretty late at night.  I was young, had long hair and figured I’d just blend into the scenery.   A woman would not have that freedom.   Things I took for granted were often due to my male gender.   Sure, I could be assaulted or mugged, but the risk was different, and perceived very differently.

When it comes to public policy issues such as abortion, aid for dependent children, food stamps, child care, health care for children, etc., it’s much easier for men to take a very abstract perspective on these issues.   Dismiss such aid as coming from “hard working taxpayers” to “loafers.”   To accuse women having kids just to get welfare money.   That happens, but rarely.   It isn’t as real to us because no matter how progressive or forward thinking we are, males usually are not the ones that have to deal with unwanted pregnancies and trying to raise children alone.   Men can still disappear.  Or as in the poem above, men can assault and get away with it, paying no consequences.

One hopes that perpetrators of violence and disrespect end up feeling karmic retribution.

But for women, these issues are real.  If she has a child her life is forever changed, and she may not be able to give the child the care and attention it deserves.   Adoption is an option, but even that comes after a life altering episode.  Suddenly she’ll have to deal with issues like how to have a career, what to do about child care, how to feed the child properly, how to get adequate health care.   And while the Rush Limbaughs of the world might sneer that “that’s the consequence of having sex,” it’s a consequence that men can quite often evade.

And when the man does get caught and is forced to pay child care, the tables get turned.  Suddenly that’s not fair — the woman could have had an abortion, why should he have to pay for years because of one mistake?   A lot of women must shake their head at such a complaint and think “welcome to our world.”

So if you oppose abortion, support expanding health care to all children, support food stamps, after school programs, free day care, and efforts to help such women get real careers.   Make it as easy as possible for women to go through the trauma of having their lives turned upside down.   Make it easy for the children to have quality opportunities.   Have a huge infrastructure of support available, disconnected from religious organizations with side agendas.

Even if all that were to get done, we men have to avoid the arrogance of talking down to or about women who are in these circumstances.  That’s why Rush Limbaugh’s comments were far more vile than Bill Maher calling Sarah Palin a “cunt.”  Calling politicians offensive names is common, but attacking women for having to deal with difficult circumstances men like Rush easily evades is disgusting.   For men to accuse women of wanting to avoid the “consequences of sex” is obscene given how easily and often men avoid those same consequences.

None of this is meant to say that women are oppressed and downtrodden.  The overall situation now is so much better than a generation ago, women have real opportunities and discrimination has been declining.   And certainly there are aspects of life where being a woman is easier than being a man.  But on issues like abortion, birth control, rape/sexual assault and all sorts of issues involving children, schools and health care, we men have to be far more sensitive to the very different experiences of women.

And it’s not just men either.   Some women can be even more judgmental if they either never were in such a situation or if they fought through such circumstances — they may think ‘if I can do it, so can they.’   But life doesn’t work that way; context shapes individuals as much as innate character and life experiences are diverse.  It’s easy to stand on the side lines, abstract the issues away from their human meaning and then judge and pontificate. For some people, that can create a sense of self-righteous pride.   But it’s a misplaced delusion.