As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Check His Countertops

11 year-old kid recites his grandfather's words, conservatives outraged.

He probably has granite in his kitchen. Or marble!!

Time to investigate, Ms. Malkin.

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Aggressive Renewable Energy Standard About To Hit California

As state Senator Mark DeSaulnier said to me a few weeks ago, on a majority-vote basis, California remains in the vanguard of the country. The Legislature is poised to prove that by the end of the session, if they manage to get to the Governor's desk the most aggressive renewable energy standard in America, with a target of getting 33% of all energy from renewable sources by 2020. Most stakeholders appear to be on board with this standard, including the utilities, who won't reach the current RES goal of 20% by 2010 (Southern California Edison Co. is at 15.5%, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. is at 11.9% and San Diego Gas & Electric Co. only at 6.1%, as of last year). They are confident that the transmission grid, helped along by federal stimulus money, will allow them to transfer renewable energy freely enough to reach the 33% standard. The question, posed today by the LA Times, concerns where that energy will come from.

The main argument is over how much of the new green power must be generated within California's borders. Another point of contention is which is more expensive: in-state renewable energy or wind and solar power from facilities elsewhere in the West [...]

Unlike the current 20% renewable energy law for 2010, the two proposed bills with goals for 2020 have enforcement provisions, including financial penalties for failing to meet renewable energy procurement levels.

They also broaden the requirements to include publicly owned utilities, such as the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

A big sticking point in the debate is how much renewable power the state's utilities are allowed to buy or generate out of state. The current law has no limit.

The utilities favor that, but labor unions and their allies want a provision in pending legislation that at least 80% of the power be generated in California.

Unions and their supporters say that most of the new power plants should be built in state so that California workers could snag most of the new green jobs and other benefits involved. "If the people of Wyoming receive the jobs, the tax revenue and the infrastructure, what benefit are Californians going to get other than higher electric bills?" said Matt Freedman, an attorney with the Utility Reform Network, a ratepayers' group. "The question is, 'Who is going to benefit from the 33% standard?'"

First of all, I can't believe that the 2006 law has no enforcement provisions. At the very least, there has to be some incentive to get the utilities to meet the standard, otherwise, as we're seeing right now, they'll slow-walk it.

To answer the man from the Utility Reform Network who asked, "Who is going to benefit from the 33% standard," the answer is that we all will, both by lower emissions and by setting a marker for other states to follow. Renewable energy is extremely popular, and if California acts boldly to set a high standard, they will see a residual benefit. There's probably a sweet spot in between no limit to out-of-state production and 20%, that can benefit both the environment and job creation in California. Perhaps a small tariff for importing renewable energy could be created to level the playing field.

Regardless, we're very likely to see this precedent-setting standard this year.

The bill numbers are SB 14 (Simitian) and AB 64 (Krekorian).

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Friday, August 28, 2009

Friday Random Ten

I missed doing this for a couple weeks. Well I'm back, baby!

Sexy - Black Eyed Peas
Dance Floors - My Morning Jacket
Brothers On A Hotel Bed - Death Cab For Cutie
The Enemy - Guided By Voices
Crying - Bjork
Nausea - Beck
My Wave - Soundgarden
Super Sex - Morphine
Low Expectations - Edwyn Collins
Jesus Walks - Kanye West

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The Costs Of Reductive Thinking

Barack Obama had an interesting moment last week during that Organizing for America strategy session on health care. Trying to put in perspective the price tag of reform, he said this:

"Now, one thing that's very important to remind people, because you notice there's been a talking point from opponents -- 'trillion-dollar health care bill' -- they love repeating that. 'Trillion-dollar health care bill.'

"First of all, it's important to remind people that when they say 'trillion dollars,' they're talking about over 10 years. So this -- we're talking about $100 billion a year -- which is still a significant amount of money. But just to give you a sense of perspective, I mean, the amount of money that we're spending in Iraq and Afghanistan is -- what's the latest figure, Debbie? You figure $8 billion to $9 billion a month, right?

"So for about the same cost per year as we've been spending over the last five to six years, we could have funded this health care reform proposal, just to give you a sense of perspective."

I don't know if I was the only one, but my immediate reaction was, "Um, well, why don't you do something about that?" I mean, sure, the costs of an unnecessary war in Iraq and a war headed toward quagmire in Afghanistan could have paid for the front end of health care reform. But they're both still raging, at a time when we have few national security interests in those regions, and certainly nothing that could not be handled with a diplomatic, law enforcement and intelligence approach rather than a military one. So if the cost of the wars from 2003-2009 could pay for health care, the future costs from 2009-2019 could go a pretty long way in their own right.

It's particularly pernicious to find the President making this argument, when as commander-in-chief he has the ability to draw down forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. If he wants to make that kind of comparison, he ought to back it up. Yet this transcript from Bruce Reidel, who managed a lot of the policy reviews on Afghanistan and Pakistan for the White House, might offer an explanation of why he won't go that far.

The triumph of jihadism or the jihadism of Al Qaeda and the Taliban in driving NATO out of Afghanistan would resonate throughout the Islamic World.This would be a victory on par with the destruction of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. And, those moderates in the Islamic World who would say, no, we have to be moderate, we have to engage, would find themselves facing a real example. No, we just need to kill them, and we will drive them out. So I think the stakes are enormous.

That's extremely dangerous thinking, as Matt Yglesias and Kevin Drum make clear. It's also not new thinking - it's basically what kept us in Vietnam for so long, as President after President didn't want to be tagged as the one who lost a war. So they talked themselves into inane theories like this, psychological projections about "losing face" and "denying the enemy a rhetorical victory," and 58,000 Americans died as a result. Hundreds and thousands more will die this time, because this kind of philosophy leaves us no out. We cannot leave so long as one member of the insurgency wants us to go, because otherwise we would be giving them a great victory.

It's not surprising to see establishment figures embrace such a reductive theory based on image and manliness. But the guy who just made the connection between the costs of war abroad and the betterment of the lives of citizens at home? As Barney Frank said at a recent town hall meeting, "If we hadn't gone to the war in Iraq, which I thought was a terrible mistake and voted against, we would have had more than enough money to pay for health care." You cannot say things like that and still send soldiers into the battle. Not if you mean them.

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Even For Huckabee, Pretty Scummy

I'm watching the memorial service for Ted Kennedy right now, and remembering how conservatives launched a full-court press this week demanding that Democrats not politicize the event and use it to rally for health care reform. Exactly what would you call this bile from Mike Huckabee other than rank politicization?

The 2008 Republican presidential candidate suggested during his radio show, "The Huckabee Report," on Thursday that, under President Obama's health care plan, Kennedy would have been told to "go home to take pain pills and die" during his last year of life.

"[I]t was President Obama himself who suggested that seniors who don't have as long to live might want to consider just taking a pain pill instead of getting an expensive operation to cure them," said Huckabee. "Yet when Sen. Kennedy was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer at 77, did he give up on life and go home to take pain pills and die? Of course not. He freely did what most of us would do. He choose an expensive operation and painful follow up treatments. He saw his work as vitally important and so he fought for every minute he could stay on this earth doing it. He would be a very fortunate man if his heroic last few months were what future generations remember him most for."

As it happens, Huckabee made his remarks shortly after he derided Democrats for using Kennedy's death to make the pitch that "Congress must hurry and pass the health care reform bill and do it in his memory,"

"That not only defies good taste," said Huckabee, "it defies logic."

Digby gets at most of what's wrong with this. Aside from the idea that "most of us" would choose an expensive operation when most of America does not have the means to use the upper tier of the health care system, it's simply disgusting to warn Democrats from making political hay out of the event of Kennedy's passing while doing exactly the same thing. Huckabee's lying about President Obama and the current bill, but even if he were talking straight, the duplicitousness is a bit much, even for him.

...I almost forgot that Huckabee was last seen claiming that evangelicals were more supportive of Israel than Jews, I guess because they want to prepare it for the Rapture more intensely.

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Using Stark Language

Leave it to Pete Stark to tell it exactly like it is.

Moderate Blue Dog Democrats ''just want to cause trouble,'' said Rep. Pete Stark, D-Calif., who heads the health subcommittee on the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee.

''They're for the most part, I hate to say, brain dead, but they're just looking to raise money from insurance companies and promote a right-wing agenda that is not really very useful in this whole process,'' Stark told reporters on a conference call.

Most of the legislative process involves posturing. The Blue Dogs want something for their districts, liberals want to represent their constituents, et cetera. When someone like Stark cuts through the posturing and lays out its consequences, it's quite revealing. He's one of the few people who can say this. He also in the same interview called co-ops the equivalent of a "medical unicorn".

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Sanford's Luck Running Out?

Mark Sanford continues to be the luckiest bastard in the world. Every time another twist and turn comes up in his personal saga, some giant event comes along and knocks him off the front page. When new details came out about his affair, Michael Jackson died. When questions were raised about using state money for his personal travel, Sarah Palin resigned. And when talk of impeachment swirled around South Carolina, with his own Lt. Governor calling for his resignation, Ted Kennedy passes away. The timing is really incredible.

But even this run of luck may not be enough to save Sanford's hide:

South Carolina Republican lawmakers are laying plans for a special session legislative session on whether to impeach and remove embattled Gov. Mark Sanford by the end of the year, several senior state lawmakers have told The Washington Times.

Republican lawmakers in the state House will use a regularly scheduled annual retreat in Myrtle Beach this weekend to discuss the governor's fate and the details on whether to call a special impeachment session of the legislature before its scheduled reconvening in January, Rep. Gary Simrill, a Republican, told The Times on Thursday.

Two bills of impeachment already are being prepared - one by a Republican lawmaker and the other by a Democrat, Mr. Simrill said.

Mr. Simrill, who said he has voted about 80 percent of the time with the Republican governor, met privately with Mr. Sanford on Tuesday and urged him to resign but to no avail.

One thing not discussed throughout this is the economic troubles in South Carolina right now. The legislature wants to get this distraction off the table so they can focus on the skyrocketing unemployment happening there. And this may not be as big an issue if the economy was humming along.

As to whether Sanford should be impeached, you have a better argument basing it on misuse of public funds and abandoning the state for a couple weeks, not a personal issue.

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NYT's Insurance Industry Tearjerker Tries To Change The Subject From Industry Practices

The New York Times published a very nice press release from the desk of Humana, one of the nation's largest health insurance companies. The reporter interviewed a bunch of employees at Humana, all of whom were horrified to see themselves depicted as "villains" in the health care debate. I agree with Yves Smith, this is an absurd angle for a story, an extreme example of selection bias. The people who work at Humana probably have a sense that their employer, um, pays their salary, and thusly, what's good for the employer is probably good for them. Similarly, most people hold a favorable opinion of themselves just as a matter of getting through the day. Not to mention the fact that their understanding of the functioning of Humana is limited to their job description. It is not possible to gain much of a perspective on the health care debate or industry practices by asking a midlevel manager "Do you think you're the worst person alive?"

Since when is it legitimate, much the less newsworthy, to get a company's perception on its embattled status, at least without introducing either some contrary opinion or better yet, facts, to counter the views of people who will inevitably see what they are doing as right? I hate to draw an extreme comparison to make the point, but staff in Nazi concentration camps also thought they were good people. It is well documented that for all save the depressed, people's assessments of their own behavior is biased in their favor.

There is some revelatory stuff in the article, however. David Sirota flags one employee saying that Humana believes in keeping down costs by "controlling utilization":

Now, I know we're supposed to think that private for-profit health care companies don't ration care, while government-run programs like Medicare do - but as the insurance industry admits right here for all to see, that's just not the case. The obvious truth is that the health insurance industry works hard to "control utilization" - that is, it works hard to make sure that when you need a costly medical service, you are "controlled" (read: prevented) from getting it.

Sure, we're all against excessive testing - and there are good ways to deal with those inefficiencies. But that's not what the insurance industry is talking about. It is talking about its practice of rationing care - and now that reality is right there in black and white for all to see.

The truth of the matter is that many of the charges that insurance companies like WellPoint level at the public option and regulatory changes sought in the health reform bill mirror accepted industry practices. WellPoint, which emailed its own customers yesterday attacking the Democratic plan, claimed that health reform will “increase the premiums of those with private coverage.” Yet WellPoint routinely hikes their own premium prices by close to double digits annually, leading to ever-increasing profits. The email stated that millions of Americans would lose their private coverage and be forced onto a government-run option if the Democratic bill passed (nothing could be further from the truth); yet WellPoint routinely uses the practice of rescission to drop their own customers from coverage if they ever try to use it, and they've admitted they would continue doing so unless forced to stop by law.

The email is an example of the astroturf practices from the industry, including, no doubt, pitching to the New York Times a story putting the human face on insurers. Many of these astroturf efforts spring from the same sources as the corporate lobby groups activating the tea party protests at town hall meetings throughout the country this August. They're trying to change the subject, away from facts, like how they're spending less of their premium revenue on medical care over the years, from 90% in the early 1990s to around 80% today. Or how they use rescission and pre-existing condition to make profits off cherry-picking the healthy and denying everyone else care. House and Senate leaders have requested more and more information about insurance company practices; Dennis Kucinich has joined that effort. But the insurance industry, while nominally siding with reform, wants to keep the focus on efforts against it, in service to de-fanging it.

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Reid On Board With Public Option

Strong words from Harry Reid on the public option.

Reid opened a private meeting of health care providers in Las Vegas on Tuesday by saying, according to one attendee who took notes: “We have a problem in America and it’s called the private insurance industry.”

Reid went on to express support for a public option, the proposed government-run insurance plan that he compared to Medicare, saying any meaningful reform legislation would have to include a public component.

Nevada’s main progressive group said the majority leader’s comments during Tuesday’s meeting of about 20 hospital CEOs, doctors and other health care providers was among the most significant statements they have heard on his thinking.

“We’re energized and we’re also confident that Sen. Reid is on the right side on this issue,” said Michael Ginsburg, a community organizer at the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, who attended the meeting. “That’s something we can take to our supporters and reassure them.”

Couple things here. First of all, Reid is up for re-election and it's going to be a dogfight, with Reid already behind in the polls. Because of his leadership position, he is caricatured by the right as a liberal ideologue, and members of his own party find him not able to compete procedurally in the Senate and get the Democratic agenda passed. But Reid has always been solid on fighting the insurance industry, which he once called the enemy of most everything we do today. And that principle has held up, despite his re-election battle. Surely Reid knows that Democrats must pass a bill if they have any hope of a decent showing in the 2010 midterms.

Second thing is that this offers good evidence that Reid may split the bill, getting the public option and other budget-related measures through on reconciliation, with the non-budget items coming in a second bill under regular rules with 60 votes. The second bill could wait until a successor is elected for Sen. Kennedy, by January 26 at the latest, if not earlier if the law is changed. Anthony Wright has a good piece about bill-splitting examples in the states when it comes to health care reform. Policy should trump process in this case.

Third thing is that Reid should threaten to repeal the McCarran-Ferguson Act that gave the insurance industry an anti-trust exemption. This has allowed the insurance industry to highly concentrate in almost every state market and has offered precious little choice. Just the buzz of repealing McCarran-Ferguson will send the insurance industry into battle mode, and the public option would be seen as practically benign by comparison.

...or, maybe, not at all.

During a tele-townhall with constituents today, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he supports a public option...but then he added an extremely important caveat. Reid said he doesn't think the public option ought to be a government run program like Medicare, but instead favors a "private entity that has direction from the federal government so people that don't fall within the parameters of being able to get insurance from their employers, they would have a place to go."

That sounds suspiciously like Reid would prefer a so-called co-op system, which almost all reformers regard with suspicion, and many regard as a non-starter.

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Healthy Families Increases The Cost Of Coverage To Keep Children On The Rolls

Given the major hits that the Healthy Families program took in the last budget revision, it's sort of good news that the program is trying to find ways to keep almost half a million kids from being dropped from the insurance rolls. How did they manage to do that?

California legislators have apparently reached a bipartisan solution to prevent more than half a million children from being cut from the Healthy Families public health insurance program.

The Senate Appropriations Committee voted Thursday to send the proposal to the full Senate. All but two Republicans on the committee – one was absent – voted with Democrats to move it to the floor. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger also supports the measure, said spokeswoman Rachel Cameron.

The state board that manages the programs had planned to begin sending disenrollment notices next week to the first wave of children set to lose coverage but decided Thursday to delay the move for a month.

The bill, which surfaced this week, would raise money for Healthy Families by having participating families share more of the costs of coverage and extending a gross premiums tax on companies that manage Medi-Cal insurance plans.

What's this now? A tax? On corporations? Well, the tax already exists. It was due to end October 1, but this measure would extend the tax, and also LOWER it, from 5% down to 2%. The California Association of Health Plans (the state insurance lobby) supports the bill, and if my business' taxation were going down while I got credit for saving children's health care (a far higher sum of money to keep Healthy Families alive comes from the First Five Commission, not this lowered tax). Also, dental insurers got an exemption from this tax because Dave Cox wanted it. So anyone who thinks this vote, requiring 2/3 in both houses, will be smooth sailing, industry opposition or not, is dreaming.

As stated in the article, the bill would increase premiums and co-pays for participating families, who opt into the Healthy Families program because they cannot currently afford coverage. The Managed Risk Medical Insurance Board (MRMIB) set out cost-saving measures that would force higher costs on low-income Californians.

MRMIB also adopted four emergency regulations to trim program spending, three of which increase families’ out-of-pocket costs for Healthy Families services. Beginning November 1, families will pay higher copays for non-preventive health, dental, and vision services; prescription drugs; and emergency room visits that do not result in hospitalization. For example, families will pay $15 for using the emergency room, up from the current $5. A fourth emergency regulation requires families to enroll in the lowest-cost dental plans for their first two years on the program, at which point families could shift to a higher-cost plan. These four changes will generate net savings of $12 million in 2009-10, according to MRMIB estimates. MRMIB did not take action on a staff proposal to increase families’ premiums for savings of $5.5 million in 2009-10, because the increases are included in a bill currently moving through the Legislature (AB 1422, Bass).

I'm pleased action is being taken so that low-income kids in this state can have health insurance coverage; in the long run, we save money by allowing them consistent and preventive care instead of paying for it collectively through ER visits. But poor families may not be able to use the coverage they get through Healthy Families if the premiums go too high. And really, we're talking about $100 million dollars to cover kids when the state shoveled $1.5 billion annually to the largest corporations in America, none of whom are thinking of abandoning 38 million potential customers in the nation's largest state. It comes down to priorities.

P.S. The Legislature took action on some other health-related bills this week. Some decent bills may get to the Governor's desk, but others were killed. Cynthia Craft of Health Access has a roundup.

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The New Rendition

In addition to the other goodies, the release of documents describing the CIA's involvement in Bush-era war on terror programs includes a shocking look at "extraordinary rendition":

The CIA’s lurid description of rendition — which hasn’t yet been reported — describes in clinical detail a process where the detainee is “securely shackled” before being “deprived of sight and sound through the use of blindfolds, earmuffs, and hoods” enroute to a “Black Site.” His “head and face are shaved” and a series of photos are taken “while nude.”

The description of rendition is contained in a document that the ACLU obtained as part of its big FOIA request and posted online late last night. It’s an 18-page fax from the CIA to the Department of Justice in December 2004, and looks like a response to a request by Justice for more info about the CIA’s treatment of “high value detainees,” or HVDs.

The document says the CIA’s rendition procedure is designed to ensure that the capture of a HVD helps create a “state of learned helplessness and dependence” that will facilitate the interrogation process.

The description of “rendition” begins on page three of the document, and describes the process this way:

a. The HVD is flown to a Black Site. A medical examination is conducted prior to the flight. During the flight, the detainee is securely shackled and is deprived of sight and sound through the use of blindfolds, earmuffs, and hoods.

There is no interaction with the HVD during this rendition movement except for periodic, discreet assessments by the on-board medical officer.

b. Upon arrival at the destination airfield, the HVD is moved to the Black Site under the same conditions and using appropriate security procedures.

The procedures, according to the memo, have a dramatic impact on the detainee. It says the process “creates significant apprehension” in the detainee “because of the enormity and suddenness of the change in environment, the uncertainty about what will happen next, and the potential dread” the detainee “might have of U.S. custody.”

What's described is basically the total breakdown of the individual. They mean to condition the detainee into a state of helplessness, through a variety of techniques, including sleep deprivation, slapping, "walling," stress positions, water dousing, and other things, which when delivered in tandem has been identified as a form of torture.

And we're still basically doing this, though not to our own black sites but third-party countries.

The Obama administration will continue the Bush administration’s practice of sending terrorism suspects to third countries for detention and interrogation, but pledges to closely monitor their treatment to ensure that they are not tortured, administration officials said Monday.

Human rights advocates condemned the decision, saying that continuing the practice, known as rendition, would still allow the transfer of prisoners to countries with a history of torture. They said that promises from other countries of humane treatment, called “diplomatic assurances,” were no protection against abuse.

“It is extremely disappointing that the Obama administration is continuing the Bush administration practice of relying on diplomatic assurances, which have been proven completely ineffective in preventing torture,” said Amrit Singh, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, who tracked rendition cases under President George W. Bush.

Asking the countries pretty please not to torture (with a wink and a nod attached, I'm sure) is just simply unacceptable. I give leeway when a prisoner is taken into custody and to a trial, but kidnapping people with insufficient evidence and handing them to countries known to torture so we don't have to get our hands bloody does not play. It continues the dispiriting legacy of the Obama Administration with respect to civil liberties that only gets occasionally disrupted with better news.

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Not Really "Le Mieux"

We have a new United States Senator to replace Florida's Mel Martinez. He's the former chief of staff of the Governor who appointed him, who is also seeking the job in 2010.

Gov. Charlie Crist chose trust and loyalty Friday over Washington experience or potential political gain in choosing former chief of staff George LeMieux to replace Republican U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez.

State Rep. Jennifer Carroll, who was considered for the position, said Crist told her he is choosing LeMieux. LeMieux is Crist's closest political adviser and the governor's pick shows he wants someone who thinks like him to hold the Senate seat Crist hopes to win in the November 2010 election.

As LeMieux said after interviewing for the position: "I'm a Charlie Crist Republican."

Technically, this is a caretaker position, albeit one that lasts a year and a half. And I think it shows the pitfalls associated with gubernatorial appointments, especially in this case, where the Governor in question is running for the seat. Crist is basically putting in a sock-puppet, who can be expected to follow his wishes to a T. During Crist's primary with conservative Marco Rubio, we can expect LeMieux to protect Crist's right flank by voting straight down the conservative line. As soon as Crist wins the primary, LeMieux will get religion and start voting in a moderate fashion, to prove Crist's moderate bona fides. I'd almost guarantee it.

With the Kennedy situation still fluid, I think that a potential Massachusetts law would be the best of all possible worlds - a quick appointment because of the outsized importance of Senate representation, along with a quick-strike special election within 4-5 months. Certainly better that a Governor putting in his sock-puppet while running for the seat himself.

By the way, LeMieux is also a former and possibly current registered lobbyist, but he's also a Republican, so that's somewhat redundant.

Kendrick Meek, the Democrat running for Senate, came out swinging:

From the moment Senator Martinez announced his retirement, Governor Crist placed his ambitions over Florida's needs. Floridians require a Senator working to ease their economic pain and achieve comprehensive health insurance reform, not a political appointee who serves the monied special interests.

The Governor added another edition to his campaign team at taxpayers' expense. George LeMieux doesn't represent Floridians facing economic challenges - he represents privileged clients with expense accounts far removed from the realities Floridians are facing.

Governor Crist was afforded a high responsibility with this appointment. Instead, he treated this process like a mockery, politicizing his selection by flying around the state at taxpayers' expense, touring major media markets and drawing this selection out. Well respected Floridians with a wealth of elected service experience from Congressman Clay Shaw to Mayor John Delaney to various Hispanic leaders were in a position to hit the ground running if appointed, but that possibility is now nonexistent.

By appointing George LeMieux, Governor Crist's inner circle was rewarded with a U.S. Senate seat and Floridians are left lacking the representation they deserve.

I like the "Charlie Crist choose a Senator tour" that apparently accompanied this selection. And in the end, he put his campaign manager and chief of staff in the seat. That probably could have happened without the fanfare.

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Too Bigger To Fail

We were told during the financial crisis that the consolidation of the banks presented a situation where they had to be saved. Now we have the resultant outcome, that the banks which managed to survive the crisis are even bigger.

The crisis may be turning out very well for many of the behemoths that dominate U.S. finance. A series of federally arranged mergers safely landed troubled banks on the decks of more stable firms. And it allowed the survivors to emerge from the turmoil with strengthened market positions, giving them even greater control over consumer lending and more potential to profit.

J.P. Morgan Chase, an amalgam of some of Wall Street's most storied institutions, now holds more than $1 of every $10 on deposit in this country. So does Bank of America, scarred by its acquisition of Merrill Lynch and partly government-owned as a result of the crisis, as does Wells Fargo, the biggest West Coast bank. Those three banks, plus government-rescued and -owned Citigroup, now issue one of every two mortgages and about two of every three credit cards, federal data show.

A year after the near-collapse of the financial system last September, the federal response has redefined how Americans get mortgages, student loans and other kinds of credit and has made a national spectacle of executive pay. But no consequence of the crisis alarms top regulators more than having banks that were already too big to fail grow even larger and more interconnected.

FDIC head Sheila Bair is quoted in this article at least sounding concerned about this. Nobody else seems to be.

The American consumer will pay the biggest price for this, by the way. Not just in terms of having to bail out the few remaining banks if things get rough, but in higher fees and charges that accompany less competition.

I'm out, I'm going to a credit union from now on.

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The Meaning Of Compromise

I think everyone expected Republicans to pre-emptively accuse Democrats of politicization in the wake of Ted Kennedy's death. (By the way, please politicize my death.) But that's just the far edge of the Overton window, the bluff so Democrats won't try to take comfort and inspiration to pass the cause of Kennedy's life. The far more insidious tactic, proffered by the right in a coalition with the bipartisan fetishists in the media, is to revise Kennedy's legacy as that of the ultimate centrist, in a fashion, the bipartisan dealmaker, the Great Compromiser. They've done a full-court press on this:

Senator Judd Gregg is already hinting at the idea. In an interview with the Boston Globe, Gregg hailed the bipartisan support for legislation he and Kennedy created together, adding that Kennedy knew how to “move the ball down the road with conservatives like myself.”

Meanwhile, Karl Rove hailed Kennedy on Fox this morning for being “willing to compromise.”

Other GOPers are floating the idea in The New York Times anonymously, in a discussion of how to navigate the politics of Kennedy’s death:

Republicans also noted that Mr. Kennedy, though an ideological liberal, was a legislative pragmatist who worked with Republicans to strike compromises on difficult subjects like health care, education and immigration. They said they saw little such reaching across the aisle in his absence.

Any member of the United States Senate with a long record will have many moments of compromise, whether between the parties or intra-party. But the idea that Kennedy should be remembered for "making the right concessions," solely in the context of bipartisanship, is a media projection helped along by a right wing who wants to blame Kennedy's absence for political polarization and the eventual death of a health care bill. We see this today with Steven Pearlstein's eleventy-billionth column arguing for the wise, high Broderist, split-the-baby approach:

And while there will be plenty of liberal Democrats who will be fuming about all the compromises forced upon them, somewhere from above will come a familiar voice with that distinctly Boston accent, whispering, "The dream will never die. Take the deal."

Notwithstanding the fact that Kennedy's staff wrote the HELP Committee version of the bill, and Kennedy himself labored over it, and that includes a public option, misses the point of Kennedy's legislative style, which continued to focus on broadening his goals and moving ever forward even when the odds weren't on his side. As Jonathan Cohn writes:

But this notion that Kennedy's liberal reputation somehow belied his pragmatism--a notion already gaining traction in the media, which has turned non-partisan accommodation into a fetish-- misses the point. Kennedy compromised on means, not ends. He would negotiate because it helped achieve his broader goals--signing on to NCLB, whatever its cookie-cutter standards, because it would send money to schools in poor, underfunded districts; embracing the Medicare drug benefit because, however poorly designed, it'd save senior citizens from having to choose between medicine and food.

It was precisely because Kennedy's devotion to his notion of social justice was so clear and dependable that he could make such deals stick. Liberals trusted him because we knew he wouldn't sell out the broader cause. If it was good enough for Kennedy, we figured, it was good enough for us. We knew he didn't see pragmatism as an alternative to ideology. It was just a necessary method of fulfilling it [...]

In the hours since Kennedy's passing, his speech to the 1980 Democratic convention--his most memorable oration, along with the RFK eulogy--has gotten a lot of play. Typically the networks show the final quote, in which he promises to continue his crusade even as he gives up his quest for the presidency. But the more important passage is where he invokes Franklin Roosevelt as an unabashed defender of the common man against the forces--and, yes, the people--who would disregard his well-being. Like FDR, Kennedy was not afraid to talk about values, to talk about right and wrong. Now that Kennedy is gone, who will pick up that torch?

Blue Dogs and ConservaDems have high praise for compromise these days, but their version of it basically preserves corporate goals and sells out their constituents in the exchange. Kennedy's version was precisely the opposite. His concern was "the least among us," the poor, the elderly, the disabled, the sick, the oppressed, the downtrodden, the less fortunate. He tried to get something for them, whenever possible. Pundits can call that "bipartisanship" but they ought to understand what that means.

The deviousness of the conservative project, to lament Kennedy's passing because now wild-eyed ideologues (like Max Baucus?) will go crazy, is clear. The true scoundrels, however, are those in the press trying to position the life of the man who did as much to advance the causes of the voiceless as anyone in the history of the Senate as someone who preferred half a loaf. Democrats should take a better lesson.

No, mere words cannot honor Ted Kennedy's memory. To pretend otherwise would be to cheapen his legacy, to lie about who Ted Kennedy really was. He was, for the vast majority of his life, a fiercely ideological public servant. It was his commitment to that New Deal social compact which defined him, which made him relevant to you and me. And his actions, not his words, were what marked him as the greatest Senator of his era. To attempt to honor Ted Kennedy without striving to further his life's work is simply impossible.

When Paul Wellstone died they told us that we couldn't celebrate him him as a political actor, that to do so would be crass and opportunistic. But the entire reason we knew Paul Wellstone, the reason we were crushed by his passing, was his political activism. It would have been a lie not to celebrate that legacy. It would have been crass to act as if Paul Wellstone hadn't been first and foremost a progressive hero, to feign nonchalance over political concerns as we eulogized the man, and in so doing stripping him of his essence. Likewise, it would be a lie today to pretend that the reason we loved Ted Kennedy had nothing to do with his leadership for working people. And it would be crass to attempt to celebrate him with mere words, rather than the action he demanded from us in life. How can we not "politicize" his legacy? The man was who he was because of his wholehearted commitment to his politics. The real obscenity -- the real opportunism -- would be for his political opponents to now try and depoliticize a quintessentially political life.

...George Steph agrees: Kennedy would have ditched the public option. Amazing how Kennedy's beliefs, after his death, line up perfectly with the beliefs of the blow-dried commentariat, n'est-ce pas? Lawrence O'Donnell, by the way, has a different perspective:

"Senator not an easy compromiser on health care reform. In 1994, I was in the room when he told the president that he believed the strategy should be a Democrats-only strategy and that we should not be trying to reach out and get Republican votes."

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I've gotten plenty of "Special DNC Survey on the Economy" letters over the years. They're essentially fundraising fishing expeditions. I doubt anyone at the offices care about what you fill out on the survey, or if you fill it out at all. They just want some cash. So I wouldn't be surprised if the surveys that the parties insert into these letters aren't checked for accuracy. That combined with the general craziness of the GOP leads to survey questions like this:

Republicans' wholehearted embrace of the paranoid style in modern politics would naturally lead them to the notion that their party members would get discriminated against in medical treatment. They've called Democrats everything up to and including Satan incarnate. Why wouldn't they think they're trying to kill them?

The RNC's alibi is that "the question was inartfully worded." Um, how would the wording of "The government could use voter registration to determine a person's political affiliation, prompting fears that GOP voters might be discriminated against for medical treatment in a Democrat-imposed health care rationing system" change anything?

I don't want to just put this out into the world irresponsibly, but looking at these warning signs I truly fear that something bad will happen in the next couple years.

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Polling And The Public Option

Partisans wield polls as swords to cut their opposition. I've certainly done it on occasion. We should all probably be more careful, especially when polling concepts that have not penetrated the public consciousness. This lesson from Nate Silver may be a good example.

A new survey by Penn, Schoen and Berland Associates for the AARP reveals widespread uncertainty about the nature of the "public option" -- a government-run health insurance policy that would be offered along with private policies in the newly-created health insurance exchanges. Just 37 percent of the poll's respondents correctly identified the public option from a list of three choices provided to them:

It is tempting to attribute these results to attempts by conservatives to blur the distinctions of the health care debate. And surely that is part of the story. But it may not be all that much of it. Democrats were more likely than Republicans to correctly identify the public option in this poll, but not by all that wide a margin -- 41 percent versus 34 percent. Meanwhile, 35 percent of Republicans thought the public option refers to "creating a national healthcare system like they have in Great Britain" -- but so did 23 percent of Democrats.

This should serve as something of a reality check for people on both sides of the public option debate. If the respondents had simply chosen randomly among the three options provide to them, 33 percent would have selected the correct definition for the public option. Instead, only 37 percent did (although 23 percent did not bother to guess). This is mostly a debate being had among policy elites and the relatively small fraction of the public that is highly knowledgeable and engaged about health care reform; for most others, the details are lost on them.

Later on, Silver casually mentions that this was part of an Internet poll, so I don't know how religiously we should take its data, even as it seems to debunk some of the data we take with respect to the public option. What's clear, and Silver makes this point further down, is that among those clear on the debate, the public option still receives something like 60% support, though changes in wording can cause wild swings up or down. We shouldn't use the most outsized numbers of support (in the 80% range) or the ones with the least (around 35%).

It wouldn't hurt to have clear signals from the Democratic leadership on what the public option would do.

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Thursday, August 27, 2009

Barney Frank v. The Teabaggers

Anyone who is aware of all Internet traditions has by now seen the footage of Barney Frank taking down the Larouchie who asked him if he would support a "Nazi policy" by asking her, "On what planet do you spend most of your time?" But Rep. Frank was in rare form that night, standing up to the uninformed shrieking of the right and offering a real lesson in how to argue with conservatives. Rep. Frank's office provided Crooks & Liars (I'm working with them now) with the tapes of that town hall meeting in Dartmouth from last week, and I put together a sort of greatest hits reel.

Frank explains what deficit hawks should concern themselves with:

"I am struck by those who say, well, you don't care about the deficit. No, I do. I do care about the deficit. That's one of the reasons, not the only one, why I voted against the single most wasteful expenditure in the history of America. The Iraq war. If we hadn't gone to the war in Iraq, which I thought was a terrible mistake and voted against, we would have had more than enough money to pay for health care."

He argues with a "tenther" who thinks that Congress isn't authorized to provide health care for their citizens:

Frank: Do you think Medicare is unconstitutional, sir?

Teabagger: I think that Medicare needs to be reformed.

Frank: Do you think it's unconstitutional? You said that the Constitution doesn't give us the authority to do it, but Medicare was done. And, do you think Medicare is unconstitutional?

Teabagger: I think that Medicare needs to be reformed.

Frank: But you won't tell me whether you think it's unconstitutional, which you said--

Teabagger: I am not a Constitutional scholar-

Frank: Then why did you start off arguing about the Constitution?

That's really a fantastic exchange, where Frank digs an inch below the surface and finds nothing. He insists on having this questioner back up the rhetoric he cribbed off of Free Republic or wherever he got it, and the guy just couldn't do it.

And this is my favorite part:

Teabagger: Can you pledge to all of us here tonight, that if a new government single-payer system is instituted, that you will opt out of your Cadillac insurance?

Frank: Yes I am in favor of single payer, and that's why I like Medicare. (yelling) You act as if you people have discovered it is August. I have been a co-sponsor of the single payer bill, I think it would be better...

Teabagger #2: But we watch tapes of Obama and everyone else secretly say they're in favor of an eventual single pay system.

Frank: I haven't... sir, it's been 21 years since I've had a secret. (Laughter) And I don't have one now! You have discovered that I'm for single payer! I've been a sponsor of single payer for years!

What you see here is several things: 1) Rep. Frank is always in control; 2) he concedes nothing; 3) he allows his opponents to hang themselves with the outlandish logic of their own claims; 4) he knows when to throw in a well-timed bon mot. At one point, Frank says, "When you say things that people can't refute, they try to drown you out. That's understandable." That's someone who is confident in their beliefs. Democrats could learn something from that.

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Cash For Clunkers, Consumer Savings, Increased Fuel Efficiency And Jobs

With the cash for clunkers program winding down, we can start to measure its effectiveness. And guess what, it was effective! The program sold almost 700,000 cars, many of which would not have otherwise been sold. It saved consumers money in both purchasing the automobile and long-term gasoline costs. Dealers who were facing hard times due to the Chrysler and GM bankruptcies will now have a boost to get them through. Third-quarter economic figures expect to have a .3-.4 increase in growth (from just a $3 billion outlay). And despite naysayers like, the most tangible impact of the program is the 39,000 jobs it created:

One auto analyst called the program a success, if only because his research showed that it was responsible for saving 39,000 jobs that otherwise would have been eliminated.

"It's really more substantial than we had thought in terms of stimulus," said David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research. "This is companies putting people back to work."

General Motors announced last week that it will reinstate 1,350 workers and add overtime for about 10,000 at three plants, as the automaker replenishes inventory sold during the government program. Honda also said it will increase U.S. production.

The other big winners in the program were Asian automakers. Eight of the top 10 new cars purchased through the program came from Honda, Hyundai, Nissan and Toyota, which claimed the top spot with its Corolla. The Corolla, Honda Civic and Ford Focus are manufactured in the United States.

I don't know how anyone in their right mind could find the program to be anything other than a fantastic success.

...Joe Romm concurs.

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As Long As Some People Say And Some Don't Say, Who Knows?

The Onion:

Is Using A Minotaur To Gore Detainees A Form Of Torture?

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Somebody Get The Giant Hook

Past national chairmen of political parties have gone on to be longtime Senators, Governors, even Presidents. This Michael Steele really is single-handedly destroying that legacy.

Steve Inskeep is not exactly the toughest interviewer in the world, and even he bats him around. My favorite part:

INSKEEP: Here's another thing that I'm trying to figure out: Within a couple of paragraphs of writing we need to protect Medicare, you write that you oppose President Obama's, quote, plan for a government-run health care system.

Mr. STEELE: Mm-hmm.

INSKEEP: Now you're a veteran public policy official. You're aware that Medicare is a government-run health care program.

Mr. STEELE: Yeah, look how it's run. And that's my point. Take Medicare and make it writ large across the country, because here we're now - how many times have we been to the precipice of bankruptcy for a government-run health care program?

INSKEEP: It sounds like you don't like Medicare very much at all...

Mr. STEELE: No, I'm not saying that. No, Medicare...

INSKEEP: ...but you write in this op-ed that you want to protect Medicare because it's politically popular. People like Medicare.

Mr. STEELE: No, no, no, no, no. Please, don't...

INSKEEP: That's why you're writing to protect Medicare.

I think the trained dolphins at Sea World could have pulled off those backflips better.

I know I've made this statement before, but in 2005 every news outlet in America told us that Howard Dean was a ticking time bomb, that he had to watch his mouth or it would get the Democratic Party into trouble and he would destroy it utterly.

Consider the alternative.

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Maybe The 2019 Sentencing Commission Bill Will Pass...

Brian Leubitz says what's needed to be said about the prison "reform" bill that the Assembly has gutted and will vote on Monday. You can see that bill here. Actually this is now a parole reform bill, and on that measure it's not bad. It ends blanket supervision and focuses resources on the worst offenders. It might even alter the circumstances that has made California alone among all states where the parole system has become nothing more than a revolving door back to jail.

But the bill removes the independent sentencing commission that would actually review and make sensible recommendations on our out-of-control sentencing process, which in the end is the only way to truly get a handle on the prison crisis. Here's Brian:

Without the sentencing commission this bill isn't worth the pixels on your screen. It won't fix the prisons. It won't create any substantive change. It will merely kick the can down the road. In order for this bill to be worthwhile, it MUST have a sentencing commission with teeth. A sentencing commission that allows policy makers who understand public safety to make the decisions, not political hacks trying to make their way to the next job. Again, if it can play in Kansas, it can happen here. The only thing missing here are a few legislators with courage.

In other words, this bill misses the opportunity presented by the budget challenges. Frankly, we only have so many cracks at this apple, and this is the perfect storm for a sentencing commission: A Republican Governor providing some cover, a budget mess requiring cost savings, and a federal court order hanging over our heads. The time is now. Like Arnold and his crew are using the mess to shock doctrine the state, we should use this mess to fix the state.

The Democrats in the Assembly who are seeking higher office do not have the courage of their convictions. Several of them have voted for a sentencing commission in the past, enough for such a bill to pass the Assembly in 2007, but they don't want to this time because they fear attack mailers. It's this kind of poor excuse for leadership that has forced federal judges to step in where the legislature would not and demand justice for those in the system whose Constitutional rights are being violated. And since the judges cannot create a sentencing commission or attack the root cause of the problem, and will probably just mass release the amount of prisoners they deem necessary (this bill still falls woefully short of their order), we'll be back here before long.

Maybe then the Assembly can recognize that there's a right and wrong way to go about this. But of course, nobody currently in the Assembly will have to make that decision, thanks to term limits.

The words "broken government" come to mind.

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Must Have Been Some Meeting Coming Up With That Backpedal

Rep. Lynn Jenkins (R-KS) last night mused about finding a "Great White Hope" for the Republican Party.

"Republicans are struggling right now to find the great white hope," said Jenkins. "I suggest to any of you who are concerned about that, who are Republican, there are some great young Republican minds in Washington." As examples, Jenkins mentioned Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA), Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI).

Now, given the history of that phrase, used in the American lexicon to describe the turn-of-the-century search for a white opponent to defeat the first African-American heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson during a time of racial polarization, I think it's pretty clear what Jenkins meant, or at least what she wanted to dog-whistle. But the whistle apparently was loud enough for humans to hear, so Jenkins and her staff had to have a late-night strategy session to come up with an excuse. Here's the best she could do:

U.S. Rep. Lynn Jenkins on Thursday in Lawrence denied that she was speaking in racial terms when she invoked the term “great white hope” at a recent town hall forum.

Jenkins, a Topeka Republican serving her first term in the House, told a recent gathering in northeast Kansas that the Republican Party is looking for a “great white hope” to help stop the agenda of a Democratic-controlled Congress and President Barack Obama.

“Obviously I was discussing the future of the Republican Party in response to a question about is there any hope for Republicans,” she said while touring Kansas University. “I was explaining that there are some bright lights in the House, and I was unaware of any negative connotation. If I offended somebody, obviously I apologize.”

Swing and a miss!

"I was just talking about a bright light, you know, a bright Caucasian light with white skin that can help the white Party - did I say white, I meant Republican Party, I don't know how white got in there - to return us to the white power where we should belong. White people."

If Jenkins were any more transparent, she'd be the Great White Hope.

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There's Something Happening Here

Quietly, almost imperceptibly, the voices of those giving testimony to the essential immorality of the broken health care system have become prominent, and the desires of the defenders of the status quo exposed.

Witness the changing tenor of town hall meetings, which changed from meeting spaces for teabaggers and Larouchies to venues for powerful expression. See this video of a woman desperate for help in a nightmare system, where her husband's insurance company has denied him coverage for a traumatic brain injury, and Rep. Tom Coburn's (R-OK) incredible response, that her neighbors (who I guess are all speech pathologists) can help her. This is made all the more insane when you know that Coburn is a doctor:

And we're starting to see real emotion and anger on the side of reform, too, like at this John McCain town hall:

Why don’t I have the health insurance you’ve got! Because I’m paying for it! And I’m paying for the President of the United States’ health insurance and Congress’ health insurance. Why don’t I have that! I’m your employer! I’m your employer! You work for me, and you’ve got a better health insurance plan than I’ve got!

McCain later evicted an angry woman who wouldn't let McCain get started. And she was indicative of many in the crowd, some who yelled about how much money McCain pocketed from insurance companies over the past year.

But I'm more interested in the series of personal stories popping up in the media, as individuals share their own crises navigating the broken health care system. Here's Cynthia Tucker in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

Having just relocated to Washington, I have to find a new pediatrician for my infant daughter. I sought recommendations from several acquaintances, and the same name came up repeatedly. (I’ll just call her Dr. Amy.)

I called Dr. Amy’s office and was given an immediate appointment. But I was also told she is “out-of-network” for Aetna.

Called Aetna. They explained I would pay several hundred dollars a year extra for the privilege of taking my baby girl to Dr. Amy.

So, I called another pediatrician who is “in-network.” She said she could see my baby at the end of October.

I have a choice to make: Pay through the nose for a highly recommended doctor who can see my baby immediately. Or, go to the doctor my insurance will pay for, which would mean my child would run months behind on her vaccination schedule. This isn’t a disaster, but it is certainly frustrating.

That's a minor inconvenience compared to this expose on the Remote Area Medical tent in Los Angeles last week:

The LA Forum, the arena that once hosted sell-out Madonna concerts, has been transformed – for eight days only – into a vast field hospital. In America, the offer of free healthcare is so rare, that news of the magical medical kingdom spread rapidly and long lines of prospective patients snaked around the venue for the chance of getting everyday treatments that many British people take for granted.

In the first two days, more than 1,500 men, women and children received free treatments worth $503,000 (£304,000). Thirty dentists pulled 471 teeth; 320 people were given standard issue spectacles; 80 had mammograms; dozens more had acupuncture, or saw kidney specialists. By the time the makeshift medical centre leaves town on Tuesday, staff expect to have dispensed $2m worth of treatments to 10,000 patients [...]

Along the hall, Liz Cruise was one of scores of people waiting for a free eye exam. She works for a major supermarket chain but can't afford the $200 a month that would be deducted from her salary for insurance. "It's a simple choice: pay my rent, or pay my healthcare. What am I supposed to do?" she asked. "I'm one of the working poor: people who do work but can't afford healthcare and are ineligible for any free healthcare or assistance. I can't remember the last time I saw a doctor."

And then this must-read from David Goldhill in The Atlantic, hardly a left-wing rag:

ALMOST TWO YEARS ago, my father was killed by a hospital-borne infection in the intensive-care unit of a well-regarded nonprofit hospital in New York City. Dad had just turned 83, and he had a variety of the ailments common to men of his age. But he was still working on the day he walked into the hospital with pneumonia. Within 36 hours, he had developed sepsis. Over the next five weeks in the ICU, a wave of secondary infections, also acquired in the hospital, overwhelmed his defenses. My dad became a statistic—merely one of the roughly 100,000 Americans whose deaths are caused or influenced by infections picked up in hospitals. One hundred thousand deaths: more than double the number of people killed in car crashes, five times the number killed in homicides, 20 times the total number of our armed forces killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Another victim in a building American tragedy [...]

I’m a businessman, and in no sense a health-care expert. But the persistence of bad industry practices—from long lines at the doctor’s office to ever-rising prices to astonishing numbers of preventable deaths—seems beyond all normal logic, and must have an underlying cause. There needs to be a business reason why an industry, year in and year out, would be able to get away with poor customer service, unaffordable prices, and uneven results—a reason my father and so many others are unnecessarily killed.

As Goldhill comes to realize, the system is rife with distortions, where every stakeholder's economic interests clash with the public interest of quality and affordable care for all. And what's more, everybody knows it, even if only intuitively.

As August fades, people are starting to see the forces of the status quo as nothing more than a sham, and starting to reconnect with their own struggles in the health care system, struggles which suggest that it needs fundamental change. The question is whether Congress will listen.

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Political Intrigue In Iraq

In addition to Ted Kennedy, another major death in the world of politics will have major repercussions. Only this one's in Iraq.

Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the head of Iraq's largest Shiite political party, died Wednesday, creating a leadership vacuum that could weaken the bloc ahead of the January parliamentary election.

Hakim, 59, died in Tehran, where he was being treated for lung cancer, his relatives and associates said.

Leaders of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq are expected to announce after Hakim's burial in Najaf this week that his son Ammar will become the new head of the party, Supreme Council officials said. However, Ammar al-Hakim, who is in his late 30s, is widely seen as too young and inexperienced to command all factions of the party, and could face a leadership challenge.

The White House offered a terse two-line condolence.

Before this happened, al-Hakim's Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and several other Shiite groups (including the Sadr movement) formed a new coalition for the January elections that excluded Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. This is a shocking development, considering how Maliki had been ruling Iraq and muscling out his Shiite competition, but the Shiite bloc must have felt safety in numbers. With al-Hakim's death, however, and one less credible figure atop the coalition, that faction could split, leading Maliki to be able to pull off a victory after all. However, he'd probably have to partner with Sunnis to do it, and the question becomes whether sectarian bonds will carry over into the voting booth for the majority of Iraqis.

Juan Cole discusses what the death of al-Hakim could mean for Iraqi politics:

After al-Hakim fell ill with cancer and began spending most of his time in Iran undergoing treatment, the UIA coalition fell apart. A rival of the Supreme Council, the Islamic Mission Party or Da'wa, grew in strength, benefiting from the vigorous leadership of Prime Minister Nuri al- Maliki (from spring 2006). Elements of the old Shiite coalition were put together again by other players this summer, with a new Iraqi National Alliance being announced just days ago. ISCI cleric and parliamentarian, Humam al-Hamudi, will chair the UIA coalition, succeeding al-Hakim. Al-Hamudi is known as a committed Shiite activist who played a major role in crafting Iraq's constitution [...]

Ash-Sharq al-Awsat (The Middle East) reports in Arabic that the future of the new Shiite coalition, the Iraqi National Alliance, is shaky now that its leader is dead. Other observers doubted that things would change much on the ground, since Abdul Aziz was already on extended medical leave and all the arrangements were undertaken by his office.

The death of Abdul Aziz al-Hakim emblazons a question mark over Iraqi politics going forward. Important parliamentary elections are scheduled for January, and al-Hakim is not there to lead his own coalition to the polls. His son Ammar is still inexperienced and relatively young. The foremost figure in ISCI outside the al-Hakim family is probably Iraqi vice president Adil Abdul Mahdi, who is widely viewed as a pragmatist rather than a party activist.

There's still lots of dealmaking left to be done, but al-Hakim's death probably strengthened Maliki's position at a time where it appeared he could get muscled out. Overall, talking political infighting is a far better discussion to have about Iraq than, well, fighting.

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The Rise Of The Tenthers

This is a very important article by Ian Millhiser for The American Prospect. Conservatives have found a new Amendment in the Bill of Rights to glorify, making a grand total of two, as they trash the other eight. Their entire Constitutional theory now rests on the tenth Amendment.

Almost a year after she called for an investigation to discover which members of Congress are "anti-American," Minnesota's nuttiest lawmaker is back. In a recent appearance with Fox's Sean Hannity, Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann accused her colleagues of "forg[etting] what the Constitution says" because they are poised to pass comprehensive health-care reform. Not to be outdone, Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina told right-wing activists on a conference call last Thursday that health reform violates the 10th Amendment; he also called on state legislators and governors to "champion individual freedom" by resisting the bill. Two Florida lawmakers beat DeMint to the punch, having already introduced legislation to block health reform from taking effect in their state.

These efforts are all part of a movement whose members are convinced that the 10th Amendment of the Constitution prohibits spending programs and regulations disfavored by conservatives. Indeed, while "birther" conspiracy theorists dominate the airwaves with tales of a mystical Kenyan baby smuggled into Hawaii just days after his birth, these "tenther" constitutionalists offer a theory that is no less radical but infinitely more dangerous.

Tentherism, in a nutshell, proclaims that New Deal-era reformers led an unlawful coup against the "True Constitution," exploiting Depression-born desperation to expand the federal government's powers beyond recognition. Under the tenther constitution, Barack Obama's health-care reform is forbidden, as is Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. The federal minimum wage is a crime against state sovereignty; the federal ban on workplace discrimination and whites-only lunch counters is an unlawful encroachment on local businesses.

I guess the words "to pay the debts and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States" don't appear in their pocket Constitutions.

Really, there's nothing new about Tentherism - it's basically nullification prettied up for the 21st century. But of course, nullification was a prelude to eventual secession and Civil War. It's not completely out of bounds to see us headed in that direction.

When George Bush sought to take money out of people's paychecks and deposit them in private retirement accounts, that was fine. Only when a Democrat takes office can the majority of actions of the federal government be seen as not only misguided, but actually in violation of the Constitution. Because conservatives consider it against the natural order of things for them not to control the government and distribute its Treasury to their favored corporate interests, a circumstance with them out of control must be criminal in nature.

This is an outgrowth of the right-wing populism we've seen in reaction to a recession and the uneasiness people feel with job insecurity and an uncertain economic future.

Today, however, the tenthers tap into the same populist outrage that inspired a generation of working-class religious conservatives to enthusiastically vote against their own interests. Fox News star Glenn Beck exhorts his audience to "be a constitutional watchdog for America" by lining up against health-care reform, cap-and-trade legislation, and the stimulus package. Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, who enthusiastically backed a tenther "state sovereignty resolution," told a right-wing radio host that he is "willing and ready for the fight if this administration continues to try to force their very expansive government philosophy down our collective throats." Tenther-inspired claims that federal spending violates the Constitution are so common at "tea party" protests that it is impossible to tell where the tenthers end and the tea baggers begin.

In other words, it is all but certain that tenthers will play a significant role in selecting the GOP's presidential nominee in 2012. And if that nominee wins, the tenthers could even come to dominate the administration in the same way that the religious right set its hooks into George W. Bush.

This is the inevitable point where all the anti-government rhetoric of the post-Reagan years was bound to go. Tenthers literally want a government that cannot govern, period. And the movement is growing. Ultimately, this is where the teabaggers meet up with the corporate interests who would thrive in an era of no regulation and no ability for the government to use their power.

But, you know, liberals are the Constitutional "activists."

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The Nelson/Landrieu Conundrum

A recent AARP poll shows 79% support for a public option competing with private insurance companies, although the poll question is kind of odd and doesn't reflect what's on offer. Nevertheless, other polls that accurately depict the public option show support in that range. However, that is not equally spread throughout the country. For instance, in a conservative state like Nebraska, more people don't support a public option (by a plurality) in health care reform, for whatever reason, and Democrat Ben Nelson gets 56% support for his handling of health care thus far. We don't have hard data on Louisiana, but Mary Landrieu, who has actually more strongly opposed a public insurance option than Nelson, may also be more in line with the interests of her state than some realize.

Speaking before what was described as a friendly crowd at the Monroe Chamber of Commerce yesterday, Sen. Mary Landrieu said she was opposed to much of the Democrats' legislative agenda.

Asked under what circumstances she would support a public option, Landrieu responded, "[v]ery few, if any. I'd prefer a private market-based approach to any health care reform that would extend coverage," according to the Monroe News Star.

"I'd like to cover everyone -- that would be the moral thing to do -- but it would be immoral to bankrupt the country while doing so," Landrieu said. The public option as currently conceived is expected to be a deficit reducer.

Dishonest? Absolutely. But out of step? Perhaps not.

What can we realistically expect from Democrats like this in red states? Obviously, under a "split the bill" scenario, they could signal support for the more broadly popular elements of reform, like insurance regulations, while opting out of the more controversial elements that only require a 60-vote standard. Or, they could simply opt to allow cloture, the wish of the majority of their caucus, while voting against the final bill. Markos polled this in the case of Nelson:

If Ben Nelson joined Republican Senators in filibustering and killing a final health care bill because it had a public health insurance option would that make you more or less likely to vote for him or would it have no real effect on your vote?

More Less
All 21 15
Dem 7 24
GOP 31 9
Ind 19 15

We can assume Nelson will vote against any bill with a robust public option. The big question is whether he will join Republicans in filibustering such a bill. Nebraska Republicans would sure love that, but at the end of the day, they'll vote for a real Republican in a contested election. Nelson would gain a small sliver from Independents, per this poll, but his real danger is among Democrats -- where he would lose a full 17 points of support [...]

If Nelson was to play this properly, he'd vote against any robust public option (and be justified doing so, given his constituency), but allow an up-or-down vote on the bill. Given the political realities of his state, that's the best we could hope for.

How can we position this so that Nelson comes around to this reality? I would look at how Republicans are pressuring Chuck Grassley. Grassley has something only the caucus can give him - the ranking membership of the Senate Judiciary Committee or the Budget Committee. And so he feels the pull from his members to not join in any bipartisan deal. Nelson and Landrieu both have pretty low seniority at the moment, although there's been a near-historic amount of turnover in the Senate recently. But if they have any designs on better committee assignments, or eventual chairmanships, the caucus should inform them of how they would do best to stay in their good graces. This pressure, by the way, should theoretically be much stronger on a Max Baucus or Kent Conrad, who already have that seniority. In addition, Landrieu and Nelson should be asked, pointedly, if they want to go down in history as having stopped access to health care for all Americans for a generation.

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Yes, It's Hypocritical. Politicians Don't Always Care About That

The call to replace Sen. Kennedy with a temporary appointment is intensifying. Among the points I've heard bandied about by Democrats in the state is that Massachusetts cannot afford to be without representation for five months.

Um, pardon me, but wasn't Kennedy basically in a hospital bed for the past 18 months, off and on?

I don't think there's any way for Massachusetts Dems to justify changing a law they altered precisely to keep Mitt Romney from appointing a successor to John Kerry. So they... shouldn't justify it. We have an entire Internet meme called IOKIYAR - It's OK if you're a Republican - based on all of the hypocritical crap they've lodged at the country over the years. One for our side wouldn't really upset that balance.

What matters is getting the policy right. I believe Senate appointments that last for years, as we saw this year in New York and Illinois and Colorado and Delaware, are generally bad for democracy. I think a quick, or relatively quick, special election, within 4-5 months, while appointing a caretaker to represent the state in the interim, is probably a decent enough compromise. I wish all states would adopt such a measure.

What will be far more interesting is to see who runs for the seat. In addition to practically the entire Massachusetts delegation in the House (save Barney Frank, who probably has enough power where he sits already), you have former Rep. Joe Kennedy II, or even Kennedy's widow Vickie. Most of the members of Congress have been hoarding money while waiting for this opportunity, 25 years in the making, for a statewide Senate run. Marty Meehan, who left Congress last year to run Lowell University, has almost $5 million in his campaign account.

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Israel/Palestine for Iran Swap?

A couple days after Israeli papers reported that Benjamin Netanyahu was stiffing Barack Obama and his plans for Middle East peace, the Guardian says that all sides have reacheda tentative agreement:

Barack Obama is close to brokering an Israeli-Palestinian deal that will allow him to announce a resumption of the long-stalled Middle East peace talks before the end of next month, according to US, Israeli, Palestinian and European officials.

Key to bringing Israel on board is a promise by the US to adopt a much tougher line with Iran over its alleged nuclear weapons programme. The US, along with Britain and France, is planning to push the United Nations security council to expand sanctions to include Iran's oil and gas industry, a move that could cripple its economy.

In return, the Israeli government will be expected to agree to a partial freeze on the construction of settlements in the Middle East. In the words of one official close to the negotiations: "The message is: Iran is an existential threat to Israel; settlements are not."

I guess it matters which reporting you believe. Russia and particularly China seem to be missing in the Guardian's report about a tough line with Iran, and they both have veto power in the UN Security Council. Juan Cole doubts its effectiveness, and thinks the Likudniks will wriggle off the hook of whatever they agreed to during peace talks. Even in the report, they are only agreeing to a "partial" settlement freeze.

What could have a bigger impact is the news that Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad plans to build the infrastructure for a separate state.

The Palestinian prime minister, Salam Fayyad, unveiled a government program on Tuesday to build the apparatus of a Palestinian state within two years, regardless of progress in the stalled peace negotiations with Israel.

The plan, the first of its kind from the Palestinian Authority, sets out national goals and priorities and operational instructions for ministries and official bodies. Mr. Fayyad said it was meant to hasten the end of the Israeli occupation and pave the way to independent statehood, which he said “can and must happen within the next two years.”

There was no immediate official Israeli comment, with the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, in Europe. But two Israeli officials reacted with consternation over what they saw as a unilateral action. The United States consul general in Jerusalem expressed approval for the plan.

The two-year timetable matches Obama's stated two-year timetable for peace negotiations in the Guardian article. I would assume that there is some back-channel encouragement of Palestinian state planning and a means to goose peace talks.

I really don't need another American President getting belligerent about Iran, especially when, the last I heard, the Islamic Republic was offering to talk. But the gears of Middle East peace, stalled throughout pretty much the entire Bush era, seem to be moving again.

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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Yes, We're Going To Politicize Ted Kennedy's Death.

I'm hearing a lot of whining on the right about the wall-to-wall coverage of Ted Kennedy's death and his politics, and how it's being "politicized". They're particularly concerned that Democrats might use Kennedy's death to push their health care reform package forward.

On the first point, those of us who sat through weeklong tributes to Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford - heck, even Jerry Falwell! - are pretty amused at this complaint. If nothing else, Ted Kennedy spent 46 years in the world's most deliberative body and has his name on over 300 pieces of major legislation. Celebrity politician deaths are practically the only time we hear anything substantive about political ideology and political positions, and there are plenty of living Republicans who will go gently into that good night someday, so it seems to me this will even out at some point. A fairly important American died. We'll get back to some guy with a sign at a town hall meeting tomorrow.

On the second point, it's similarly amusing that anyone in either party would whine and complain about events becoming "politicized." Another word for it is "the normal rhetorical connections human beings make to advance their policies." It's been done by approximately every human being in all of history. And it actually should be that way. Aimai puts this about as well as it can be put:

It's our own little dance of death. Anyone remember the fake outcry at the Wellstone Memorial's political tone? If you missed it, or can't remember, you can read all about it here. Its one of the things that really politicized Franken, and in the linked essay he draws the connection between the way the right wing treated the outpouring of grief and political activism around Wellstone's death to the way they treated Coretta Scott King's funeral. In both cases the left was lectured in how we are to understand the lives of our own members and we were ordered not to celebrate those lives, not to take up the banner of their causes, but to mourn quietly, secretly, almost shamefacedly. But funerals and memorials aren't about something quiet, private, shameful. Death and Politics are both important parts of life. Funerals and memorials are places where we gather to be together and to pursue communal goals. We mourn, but we celebrate. We gather together to remember, and to plan to leap forward.

In America, as around the world there is a natural logic to the political and social use of the funeral. The end of one life is not the end of that person's struggle. Sometimes its the key inflection point, the moment that the solitary struggle becomes public, or the moment that the lone voice, though stilled, is taken up. This is as true for the famous (see e.g. MLK, Malcolm X, JFK, BK, Ninoy Aquino, etc..etc...etc...) as it can be for the lowly member of the crowd--(Neda Soltan).

As inevitable as the use of the funeral, or the memorial, by partisans is the attempt to repress the funeral or the memorial by the forces of reaction. Wherever funerals are an important social setting--a safe place for people to turn out, grieve, communicate, and organize there will be attempts from above or below to prevent any mobilization around the body, or the cause. In Iran, to give just one example, the state decides who is a "martyr" and whose death will be publicly solemnized, and it has for years interfered with families trying to publicize or socialize the deaths of their loved ones if those deaths looked like they would cause trouble for the government. The recent death of Neda was one such occasion. In the US, of course, we have struggled for years over who owns or appropriates public deaths like those of the 9/11 victims, the Katrina dead, and our soldiers.

Funny, I seem to remember plenty of Republicans waving the bloody shirt and using the death of Neda to serve their political ends. And I remember walking back from a night of the DNC in Denver - site of Ted Kennedy's last major speech - to anti-abortion conservatives holding up pictures of dead fetuses trying to compel me to change my mind on a women's right to choose. Death has been used as a weapon by conservatives for many, many years. "Death panels," anyone?

It is perfectly normal in any society for heroes to be lauded in death and for people who admired them to honor their memory by endeavoring to secure their goals. If I die, I'd want others to politicize it by taking up the causes I favor and working to pass them. Most people would call that tribute and not an insult.

So, in the event of my passing, I want it to be clear these are my wishes:

1) Please honor me by continuing to fight for the liberal causes I held dear.
2) Explicitly state in any obituaries, memorial services, etc. that what I would have wanted was to keep the fight going
3) Impassioned speeches about the fight ahead for progressivism are especially welcome
4) Indeed, the only way to honor my memory is to double down and fight for a better world
5) Conservatives who don’t like this should shut the fuck up.

Similarly, I don't think conservatives have to necessarily stop their advocacy just because of the death of a popular opponent. It's a nice sentiment of respect, but I don't think anyone really considers it sincere. Liberals should draw inspiration from their heroes just as conservatives draw inspiration from theirs. And if each side is comfortable in their ideas, there should be no reason to censor them in the face of an untimely loss from their adversaries. We don't need loss to remind us of our goals, but it tends to put things in perspective and serve as a focal point for them. I'm assuming that leaders would want it that way.

What set Ted Kennedy apart was not his liberal scorecard or how he lined up on this issue or that issue - there are plenty of liberals who have come and gone through the Senate - but how he set his ideology in specific moral terms. Few others were willing to advocate on moral grounds for, say, the right to a living wage, or quality health care for all, or civil rights regardless of race or creed, color or class, or physical disability. He spoke not to the head but to the heart. And when someone with that worldview dies, it's perfectly natural to react in the same moral terms - to honor the legacy through carrying out his many causes, by living up to his ideal. It's how we repay the debt of a man who put himself on the line for the less fortunate.

And we shouldn't apologize for it.

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