Monday, February 1, 2010

Safe Ground

Reformers who are always compromising have not yet grasped the idea that truth is the only safe ground to stand upon.
-- Elizabeth Cady Stanton, The Woman's Bible

In this week's Sift:
  • What Happened in Massachusetts? Scott Brown won for a lot of reasons, and some of them will be a problem for all Democrats in November. But moving to the right isn't the answer.
  • Obama Bounces. Progressives needed to hear a good State of the Union speech from Obama, and they did. Then he ran rings around House Republicans in a televised Q&A session.
  • Short Notes. The economy grows, but jobs don't. Justice O'Connor disagrees with the Court. CBS favors conservative ads. How Norway beats staph. A jury refuses to justify killing an abortionist. Good-bye to Howard Zinn. And more.

What Happened in Massachusetts?
Few political events could have been more surprising than the Democrats losing Ted Kennedy's seat in the Senate on January 19. Massachusetts was the only state that McGovern carried against Nixon in 1972. President Obama got 62% of the vote there just 14 months ago. But Martha Coakley lost to Scot Brown on January 18, and it wasn't even close: 52-47.

So what happened?

Surprising events seldom have just one cause: Large national forces were at work, Brown ran a better campaign than Coakley, and some of it was luck. If you want to give a no-big-deal explanation, you focus on luck and tactics. If you want to tell a this-changes-everything story, you focus on the national forces. Let's go through all three.

Luck. This election came at a bad time for the Democrats. The economy is sufficiently out of the woods that it's hard to remember how scared we all were a year ago. (Any time you dodge a bullet, denial quickly kicks in and you start telling yourself, "That gun was never really loaded.") But the recovery is not far enough along to have produced any jobs yet. Plus, Republicans have succeeded in pretending that the Bush administration never happened, or if it did happen, it was a very long time ago and has nothing to do with our current problems. (Rachel Maddow's account is hilarious: "It's almost like the Republicans want us to believe they didn't exist until about two weeks ago.")

The Massachusetts election was also just a week or two before the expected final vote on the health-care bill, just as the final wording was being worked out by the House/Senate conference committee. Consequently, all the media coverage was about the ugly process and not the result. The whole country has watched the bill get more complicated and insurance-company-friendly -- not because the changes were popular or made sense, but because the last two or three senators managed to hold the bill hostage.

Worse, even the content-based coverage focused on the little contentious details that still needed to be worked out: abortion, enforcing the mandate, taxing so-called "cadillac" insurance policies, and so on. The big picture, the reason real people should care about health-care reform, got lost: Sick Americans should get the care they need, and they shouldn't have to go bankrupt paying for it.

Finally, this was a moment when there was no actual bill. Anything from either the House or the Senate bill could wind up in the final one, and literally anything could still have been slipped in at the last minute by the conference committee. It was a perfect moment to raise fears that would be hard to refute.

Imagine instead what would have happened if this election had been three weeks later, with the health-care bill passed and signed. All the process issues would have been water under the bridge, the media would be focusing on what the program would actually do (rather than whatever wild things critics were saying about it), and congressional Democrats would have gotten a boost from having accomplished something rather than just talking endlessly. Coakley might well have won.

Tactics. But then you have to ask: Why wasn't the bill already passed and signed? That wasn't an act of God. The Democrats could have had this done months ago. But they didn't see the Massachusetts election day as a deadline, because they never imagined losing.

The whole party, not just the Coakley campaign, was complacent. Coakley came out of the primary way ahead of Brown in the polls, but having spent all her money. Democrats were reluctant to contribute to a campaign they assumed would win anyway. Conversely, Republicans had nothing to lose, and knew that even a close loss would get them a lot of positive buzz.

So Brown had several weeks to advertise without response. He was able to define his own image and set the basic issues of the campaign. He did it very well.

The way the Brown campaign framed healthcare was particularly brilliant. You see, there are two main things to understand about the politics of healthcare:

(1) People who experience socialized medicine like it. No democracy has ever repealed a universal health-care system. Once in place, government health-care systems are so popular that even conservatives won't run against them. In this country, the last Republican to campaign against Medicare was Goldwater. Socialized medicine works, and voters like it once they see it.

(2) Healthcare separates the Haves from the Have-Nots. I don't mean this in the usual sense of rich-against-poor, but in the very literal sense that if you already have health-care coverage you like, you have more to lose and less to gain from any change to the system.

Now, naively, you might think that people who get their healthcare from Medicare or the VA or Medicaid would be fans of socialized medicine: They have experienced it; they know it works. But Scott Brown was smart enough to realize this: People who already benefit from socialized medicine are Haves, not Have-nots.

Being the most liberal state in the nation, Massachusetts already has a government-mandated near-universal health-care program. In fact, the Massachusetts system looks just like the much-reviled Obamacare: Private insurance companies compete on regulated exchanges, individuals are mandated to buy coverage if they don't already get it through their employers, and people who can't afford premiums are subsidized.

So did Brown run against this evil socialist health-care system? No, of course not. ("I support the 2006 healthcare law") It would have been suicide. A post-election poll showed Massachusetts voters supporting their state health-care plan 68-27. Even Brown voters support the state plan 51-44.

Instead, Brown argued that Massachusetts voters are Haves, so they should oppose this proposed change to the status quo. And he attacked the national health-care bill by claiming it would hurt Medicare. This government health-care plan, in other words, is a threat to the government health-care plan you're using now.

National forces. Democrats are in trouble nationally, at least according to the current polls. The Daily Kos tracking poll has Republicans leading on a generic Congressional ballot ("Would you like to see more Democrats or Republicans elected to Congress in 2010?") 39-37, even though the approval rating of the current Republicans in Congress remains extremely low (21% compared to an also-abyssmal 37% for Congressional Democrats). There is also an enthusiasm gap. According to the same poll 80% of Republicans say that they either definitely or probably will vote in 2010, compared to 66% of Independents and only 52% of Democrats.

That said, Steve Singiser has an insightful article on Daily Kos discussing the recent wave of Democrats-are-doomed punditry, even among political scientists who ought to know better. The same signs were much worse for the GOP in 2006 and 2008, Singiser claims, without yielding the same level of doom-saying.

The right-wing media has been pushing the people-are-mad-as-hell story since the summer town hall meetings. With so much noise and spin, it's hard to tell what the real level of public anger is or what exactly the angry people are angry about. The number of people who tell pollsters that the country is on the wrong track has been rising lately and is up to 60%, but that number was over 80% just before the 2008 election.

My take: There is considerable discontent in the country, but it isn't ideological. One of the most unpopular recent policies, for example, is the bank bailout (which everyone forgets was done by Bush). But people surely don't believe that ideological conservatives would be tougher on the banks than ideological liberals.

Looking forward, getting out in front of the popular discontent is going to be the defining tactical challenge of 2010. It's not just a liberal/conservative thing.

Retreat? The inside-the-beltway reaction has been that Obama needs to slow down and move to the right. Former Clinton advisor Mark Penn, for example, wants Obama to take post-1994-debacle Bill Clinton as a model. He should "break health care up into its components" and "start with the easy stuff like electronic medical records." He should not "be afraid to do what some think of as the small stuff" and should "look for ways to be genuinely bi-partisan." In particular, "Genuine bi-partisanship would have given the Republicans malpractice reform in exchange for a public option."

Even if you believe that people should still be listening to Mark Penn (the mastermind behind Hillary Clinton's bungled 2008 campaign), this is all incredibly clueless. Let's start with the malpractice reform suggestion. No Republican ever offered this deal. In fact, no Senate Republican ever offered any deal on health care. Here's the typical pattern: Olympia Snowe put forward her public-option-trigger idea, but when Democrats offered to put it in the bill, she wouldn't promise to vote for it. Again and again, Lucy pulled the football away from Charlie Brown.

Republicans have repeatedly denied that people-without-health-insurance is a real problem, just as they deny that global warming is a real problem. What could Obama possibly accomplish by negotiating on those terms? You can compromise on solutions, but not on whether there's a problem.

Politically, Bill Clinton is an example of what to avoid. He managed to get himself re-elected, but he lost the House in 1994 and never got it back. He entered office with 56 Democratic senators. When he left in 2001 there were 50 and the progressive movement was in tatters. Democrats went down to huge defeats in 2002 and 2004, when the party continued the Clintonesque move-to-the-center approach. And Republicans were so grateful for his help on welfare reform, NAFTA, the Defense of Marriage Act, and don't-ask-don't-tell that they impeached him.

Fundamentally, the argument between Republicans and Democrats is whether government can help people solve their problems. To win that argument Democrats have to help people solve their problems. Focusing on meaningless trivia just makes the Republicans' case for them: If government isn't going to solve problems for you, then the best you can hope for is a tax cut.

Health care. Democrats need to get health care done, not pull it back and start over. (You do it like this.) That's true across the board. Even without the magic Senator #60, Democrats have bigger majorities in both houses of Congress than any administration has seen in decades. If they can't achieve anything with those majorities, why should voters show up for them in November?

Remember when the stimulus bill passed? Al Franken was still tied up in a court challenge and Arlen Specter hadn't switched parties yet, but somehow they got it done with only 58 Democrats. This fake beer ad has the right message.

Obama Bounces
President Obama had two big TV hits this week: the State of the Union address (video, transcript) Wednesday and his Q&A session with the House Republicans Friday. Put together, the two events stopped the bleeding from the Scott Brown race. LIke a lot of the liberal base, Joan Walsh suddenly remembered the President Obama we voted for.

The task of the SOTU speech wasn't to outline a new policy track. Instead, Obama wanted to reassure America that he understands what's going on and knows what he's doing. Polls indicate that he succeeded.

A lot of the speech was devoted to recalling facts that his opposition has managed to obscure: He inherited a huge deficit and the threat of a depression. He increased the deficit to avoid the depression -- something liberal and conservative economists alike recommended, even if they disagreed on the particulars. He cut taxes on working families and didn't raise taxes on anyone.

Now the economy has stabilized, but lots of people are still unemployed. He's going to keep using the deficit to stimulate the economy for another year, and then start cutting the deficit. He had several other policy proposals -- a jobs plan, a new tax on big banks, repealing don't-ask-don't-tell -- but mostly called for action on the proposals he has already made: "Don't walk away from [health-care] reform. Not now. Not when we are so close." And to the congressional Democrats he said: "I would remind you that we still have the largest majority in decades, and the people expect us to solve problems, not run for the hills."

Obama challenged the Republicans on health care:
But if anyone from either party has a better approach that will bring down premiums, bring down the deficit, cover the uninsured, strengthen Medicare for seniors, and stop insurance company abuses, let me know.
After the speech, Republicans objected that they have already presented a plan. And they have -- but not a serious one. According to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office the Republican plan would accomplish none of the goals Obama listed. McJoan on DailyKos and MediaMatters have the details.
Obama's meeting with the House Republicans at their annual retreat was truly remarkable. It's impossible to imagine President Bush doing anything like it: facing hostile questions for over an hour without losing his cool, with no staff to give him answers or allies to toss him softballs. He challenged the factual basis of many of the questions and had substantive answers. (The best measure of how well Obama did: Fox News cut away in the middle to show something else. They knew their side was losing.)

whether it will be remembered as a moment that began to ease the tensions between the two parties -- or an asterisk in this era of polarized politics.
Duh. Polarized politics isn't some kind of Hatfield-McCoy feud that nobody remembers the cause of. Polarization serves the interests of powerful forces in our society. Those forces didn't lose their power Friday and their interests didn't change.

Here's what will change: Republicans will never again let themselves be televised going head-to-head with Obama. They'll go back to sniping at him from a distance.

Short Notes
Now we've had two consecutive quarters of growth in the overall economy. Will that convince businesses to start hiring people? So far it hasn't.

Last week I blamed the Citizens United decision on the fact that Justice Alito replaced Justice O'Connor. Looks like I was right.

Stephen Colbert:
Corporations are legally people. And it makes sense, folks. They do everything people do except breath, die, and go to jail for dumping 1.3 million pounds of PCBs into the Hudson River.

CBS thinks politically charged ads are OK -- if they're conservative. It will show Focus on the Family's anti-abortion ad during the Super Bowl, but not an ad from a gay dating website. In 2004 CBS refused to air ads from the United Church of Christ, which wanted to tell gays and lesbians they'd be welcome at a UCC church.

The abortion ad tells the story of a woman who claims that doctors urged her to get an abortion in 1987. She had the baby anyway, and that child is now star college quarterback Tim Tebow. Like many heart-warming stories from the religious right, this one might be stretched a little.

WWDQD: What would Dr. Quincy do? In Orleans Parish, Louisiana there's a vicious attack-ad in the race for coroner. You've got to wonder how much this race is going to cost, and why the office is worth that kind of money.

I'll let Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert tell the James O'Keefe story, because I don't think the incident deserves a lot of serious news coverage. This is an irresistible shiny object for liberals, but it takes us off-message.

Unlike us, the British are having an official inquiry into how the Iraq war started. You can keep up with it here. This week the inquiry drew special attention because Tony Blair testified for about six hours. He was self-justifying and unrepentant, but at least somebody asked the questions. A report will come out eventually. It's hard to say whether there will be any other consequences.

We can't do anything like that in this country, but at least we have our sense of humor. Human Rights First makes an ad spoofing Liz Cheney's Keep America Safe ad.

I may be the only person who thinks so, but I like the idea of trying Khalid Shaikh Mohammed in Manhattan. I know the security is expensive, but if we can pull this off, I think it's a huge propaganda victory for the US.

Americans need to look at this from the point of view of the young Muslims that Al Qaeda wants to recruit. Bin Laden has been telling them not to be fooled by American rhetoric about freedom and human rights; that's just for white Christians, not for Arabs or Muslims. And he's telling them that Americans are cowards who will throw all their principles out the window whenever they get scared.

Again and again, the Bush administration made Bin Laden a prophet by acting in unprincipled and cowardly ways. Trying KSM in Manhattan, where his crime was, is brave and principled. It would undo some of the damage that the Bush administration did to America and win back a little ground in the war of ideas.
Speaking of terrorists, Scott Roeder was found guilty of first degree murder. He admitted killing abortionist George Tiller, but claimed his action was necessary to save the lives of unborn children. His lawyers were pushing for a lesser charge: voluntary manslaughter, which would have let him out of prison in five years. The judge eliminated that option on Thursday, ruling that no unborn children were in imminent danger during the Lutheran church service where Tiller was shot. (What is it about conservative terrorists and churches?)

Rest in peace, Howard Zinn. My favorite Zinn story is a bit of historical trivia: No one was home when the FBI came to arrest Daniel Ellsberg for leaking The Pentagon Papers, because the Ellsbergs and the Zinns were down in Harvard Square watching Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. (Ellsberg decided not to go home, and became the subject of a major manhunt.)

Ellsberg remembers Zinn here. Bob Herbert and many others also eulogized him.

1 comment:

Lawrence said...

The big economic news last week was that Ford is hiring second shift workers in Chicago for $14 / hour (less than half of what current union workers at Ford receive) and reduced benefits. That is the opposite of what Henry Ford did in 1914 when he started paying his workers $5/day, more than double the wage ($2.34 / day) of an average auto worker.