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Obama is a Republican…

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That’s what Bruce Bartlett says, in an essay on The American Conservative website, specifying that Barack Obama is “the heir to Richard Nixon, not Saul Alinsky.” Bartlett, pour mémoire, is a former GOP leading light who has become disillusioned with the party (which, on Twitter, he refers to as “the wanker party”). He explains

In my opinion, Obama has governed as a moderate conservative—essentially as what used to be called a liberal Republican before all such people disappeared from the GOP. He has been conservative to exactly the same degree that Richard Nixon basically governed as a moderate liberal, something no conservative would deny today. (Ultra-leftist Noam Chomsky recently called Nixon “the last liberal president.”)

Bartlett then sets out to prove his argument. Here’s what he has to say on the subject of health care reform

Contrary to rants that Obama’s 2010 health reform, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), is the most socialistic legislation in American history, the reality is that it is virtually textbook Republican health policy, with a pedigree from the Heritage Foundation and Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, among others.

It’s important to remember that historically the left-Democratic approach to healthcare reform was always based on a fully government-run system such as Medicare or Medicaid. During debate on health reform in 2009, this approach was called “single payer,” with the government being the single payer. One benefit of this approach is cost control: the government could use its monopsony buying power to force down prices just as Walmart does with its suppliers.

Conservatives wanted to avoid too much government control and were adamantly opposed to single-payer. But they recognized that certain problems required more than a pure free-market solution. One problem in particular is covering people with pre-existing conditions, one of the most popular provisions in ACA. The difficulty is that people may wait until they get sick before buying insurance and then expect full coverage for their conditions. Obviously, this free-rider problem would bankrupt the health-insurance system unless there was a fix.

The conservative solution was the individual mandate—forcing people to buy private health insurance, with subsidies for the poor. This approach was first put forward by Heritage Foundation economist Stuart Butler in a 1989 paper, “A Framework for Reform,” published in a Heritage Foundation book, A National Health System for America. In it, Butler said the number one element of a conservative health system was this: “Every resident of the U.S. must, by law, be enrolled in an adequate health care plan to cover major health costs.” He went on to say:

Under this arrangement, all households would be required to protect themselves from major medical costs by purchasing health insurance or enrolling in a prepaid health plan. The degree of financial protection can be debated, but the principle of mandatory family protection is central to a universal health care system in America.

In 1991, prominent conservative health economist Mark V. Pauley also endorsed the individual mandate as central to healthcare reform. In an article in the journal Health Affairs, Pauley said:

All citizens should be required to obtain a basic level of health insurance. Not having health insurance imposes a risk of delaying medical care; it also may impose costs on others, because we as a society provide care to the uninsured. … Permitting individuals to remain uninsured results in inefficient use of medical care, inequity in the incidence of costs of uncompensated care, and tax-related distortions.

In 2004, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) endorsed an individual mandate in a speech to the National Press Club. “I believe higher-income Americans today do have a societal and personal responsibility to cover in some way themselves and their children,” he said. Even libertarian Ron Bailey, writing in Reason, conceded the necessity of a mandate in a November 2004 article titled, “Mandatory Health Insurance Now!” Said Bailey: “Why shouldn’t we require people who now get health care at the expense of the rest of us pay for their coverage themselves? … Mandatory health insurance would not be unlike the laws that require drivers to purchase auto insurance or pay into state-run risk pools.”

Among those enamored with the emerging conservative health reform based on an individual mandate was Mitt Romney, who was elected governor of Massachusetts in 2002. In 2004, he put forward a state health reform plan to which he later added an individual mandate. As Romney explained in June 2005, “No more ‘free riding,’ if you will, where an individual says: ‘I’m not going to pay, even though I can afford it. I’m not going to get insurance, even though I can afford it. I’m instead going to just show up and make the taxpayers pay for me’.”

The following month, Romney emphasized his point: “We can’t have as a nation 40 million people—or, in my state, half a million—saying, ‘I don’t have insurance, and if I get sick, I want someone else to pay’.”

In 2006, Governor Romney signed the Massachusetts health reform into law, including the individual mandate. Defending his legislation in a Wall Street Journal article, he said:

I proposed that everyone must either purchase a product of their choice or demonstrate that they can pay for their own health care. It’s a personal responsibility principle.

Some of my libertarian friends balk at what looks like an individual mandate. But remember, someone has to pay for the health care that must, by law, be provided: Either the individual pays or the taxpayers pay. A free ride on government is not libertarian.

As late as 2008, Robert Moffitt of the Heritage Foundation was still defending the individual mandate as reasonable, non-ideological and nonpartisan in an article for the Harvard Health Policy Review.

So what changed just a year later, when Obama put forward a health-reform plan that was almost a carbon copy of those previously endorsed by the Heritage Foundation, Mitt Romney, and other Republicans? The only thing is that it was now supported by a Democratic president that Republicans vowed to fight on every single issue, according to Robert Draper’s book Do Not Ask What Good We Do.

Senior Obama adviser David Axelrod later admitted that Romney’s Massachusetts plan was the “template” for Obama’s plan. “That work inspired our own health plan,” he said in 2011. But no one in the White House said so back in 2009. I once asked a senior Obama aide why. His answer was that once Republicans refused to negotiate on health reform and Obama had to win only with Democratic votes, it would have been counterproductive, politically, to point out the Obama plan’s Republican roots.

The left wing of the House Democratic caucus was dubious enough about Obama’s plan as it was, preferring a single-payer plan. Thus it was necessary for Obama to portray his plan as more liberal than it really was to get the Democratic votes needed for passage, which of course played right into the Republicans’ hands. But the reality is that ACA remains a very modest reform based on Republican and conservative ideas.

If any Republicans are reading this and disagree with Bartlett on the health care issue, I’d like to hear their objections.

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In Defense of Obama

US President Barack Obama gives a thumbs

Paul Krugman thus makes the case in the latest issue of Rolling Stone, in which he explains how “Obama has emerged as one of the most consequential and, yes, successful presidents in American history.” No less. And Krugman, pour mémoire, has spent a good part of the past seven years critiquing Obama, when not beating up on him. But being a smart and fair person, he gives credit where credit is due. And, as usual, Krugman convinces.

One little thing. Krugman speaks about “polls showing that Obama does, indeed, have an approval rating that is very low by historical standards.” Obama’s current job approval rating, according to RCP’s aggregate, is 42.9%. At no point in his presidency has it dropped below 40%. I’m sorry but that’s not bad at all. By contrast, Bush 43 spent almost all of the last three years of his presidency below 40% and by the end of it was in the mid 20s. Bush lost part of his base. Obama has not lost his. If François Hollande had Obama’s current poll numbers—which he can only dream of—, his presidency would likely be deemed a smashing success…

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Hillary Clinton in Jerusalem October 31 2009 Xinhua Reuters Photo

[update below]

It looks like I have a new series going here. I just came across a commentary by Philip Weiss, founder and co-editor of Mondoweiss—the go to site for the stateside Israel-bashing one-stater crowd—, explaining how “Hillary Clinton just lost the White House in Gaza — [the] same way she lost it in Iraq the last time.” Weiss asserts that Hillary’s pro-Israel pronouncements during the latest Gaza war—notably expressed in her recent “famous interview” with Jeffrey Goldberg—and her striving “to please neoconservatives” have put paid to her ambitions for 2016, as the liberal-left primary and caucus-voting Democratic party base will turn away from her on account of her rhetoric on Israel/Palestine (my emphasis) and support en bloc the candidate who runs to her left—and that it is a certainty that such a candidate will emerge and “exploit this sentiment [on Israel/Palestine] for political gain.” Weiss acknowledges that “he’s going out on a limb” with his prediction but he’s pretty sure of it, as he sees a sea change underway on the liberal-left side of American politics in regard to Israel, with younger, progressive, and disaffected ex-liberal Zionist voters increasingly rejecting the Democratic party’s uncritical pro-Israel stance and slavishness to AIPAC. And that this sea change will manifest itself in the ’16 election.

Weiss is, as we say over here, à côté de la plaque, i.e. he’s out to lunch. His understanding of American electoral politics is clearly deficient or/and he believes his gauchiste Israel/Palestine-obsessed Mondoweiss milieu to be more consequential in the Democratic party base than it is. Now it is incontestable that liberals—including Jews—have become more critical of Israel in recent years, which any liberal-lefty in the US can attest to (e.g. I am continually struck by the number of American Jewish friends who speak harshly of Israel these days, which they never did in the 1970s-80s or the post-Oslo 1990s). And these personal observations are supported by polling data, e.g. last year’s Gallup poll showing 24% of self-identified liberals sympathizing with the Palestinians over Israel, with 51% for Israel, i.e. a mere 2 to 1 ratio, which, in the US, is not bad for the Pals. With Israeli governments now indistinguishable from US Republicans—and Tea Party Repubs at that—, liberal/Jewish disaffection toward Israel is only normal. But the disaffection is toward the current Israeli government and its leading personalities—Netanyahu, Lieberman, Bennett et al—and Israeli policy, not toward the State of Israel itself—or to Zionism (as defined here). If the Likud and its far right allies were defeated in a general election and replaced by a center-left government—such as center-left is understood in Israel—, and there were a serious return to the “peace process,” a lot of the disaffection among liberal Jews would dissipate. But even if this doesn’t happen in the next election or two—and I’m not holding my breath—there is not a snowball’s chance in hell that American Jews outside Weiss’s New York-New Jersey gauchiste milieu will become one-staters and endorse Palestinian narratives.

Or that Israel/Palestine will drive voting behavior. Weiss is deluding himself if he thinks I/P will be an issue during the 2016 primary season and cause even a minuscule number of voters not to vote for Hillary should she run. Why on earth would Israel suddenly become a major issue in a Democratic presidential nomination race when it never has in the past (except maybe in New York state, and even then)? Except when American soldiers are fighting and dying in a war, foreign affairs never figure in American presidential primaries. As for a candidate to Hillary’s left, the only potential one who would have any credibility—at least as it looks today—is Elizabeth Warren, though who says she’s not running. But if Warren changes her mind and throws her hat in the ring, she will definitely attract a lot of support (including from me, BTW; pour l’info, I am a registered voter in Cook County, Illinois, and faithfully vote absentee in all national elections and primaries), but it will be for all sorts of reasons and policy stands, and that will have nothing to do with the Middle East. Unless Hillary tacks sharply left on domestic policy, she will definitely be vulnerable to an eventual Warren candidacy. Mais on n’en est pas là…

But if Warren does run, pro-Pal liberal-lefties are likely to be disappointed, as it is a certainty that her rhetoric will be decidedly pro-Israel, perhaps even as much so as Hillary’s. Warren is a politician and will not take positions that will cause her to lose more than she will gain. As I explained during the last Gaza war, there is a reason US congresspeople and presidential candidates are 100% pro-Israel—even more pro-Israel than Israelis are themselves—, which is because they have absolutely nothing to gain by being otherwise. And on this, they have nothing to worry about vis-à-vis public opinion, as the American public remains overwhelmingly pro-Israel (the numbers on this are clear; and if Democrats have become less pro-Israel, Republicans have become more so, the latter thus cancelling out the former). This may evolve in the future but one shouldn’t count on it, as with the Middle East going to hell in a handbasket—with ISIS, bloodbaths in Syria and Iraq, brutal dictatorship in Egypt, state collapse in Libya, unsympathetic socio-cultural-political orders in the Arabian peninsula, Hizbullah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, et j’en passe—Israel will continue to look relatively good to most Americans. Désolée mais c’est comme ça.

UPDATE: M.J. Rosenberg, on his new blog (August 24th), explains “Why Democrats will never change their tune on Israel.” Money quote

Progressive Democrats are not single issue. If a candidate (think of former Congressman Barney Frank) is good on health care, jobs, GLBT issues, fracking, taxes, abortion, etc. but supports the slaughter in Gaza, progressives vote for him anyway.

That is why even Elizabeth Warren and Sherrod Brown are down-the-line Netanyahu supporters. There is no downside in offending progressives but there is one in offending Israel Firsters.

Obviously. And, lo and behold, Philip Weiss has expressed disappointment with Elizabeth Warren in her Senate vote to give Israel an extra $225 million in military aid and for “mouth[ing] Israeli talking points” in a public meeting with constituents (August 28th). Hey, Phil, what did you expect?

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New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait has an article, dated April 6th, of this title, which is one of the more interesting examinations I’ve read on the exasperating, poisonous liberal-left vs. conservative-right polemic over Obama’s presidency and the issue of race. The lede: “Optimists hoped Obama would usher in a new age of racial harmony. Pessimists feared a surge in racial strife. Neither was right. But what happened instead has been even more invidious.”

There are lots of good passages in the article, in particular this one

…the truth is almost too brutal to be acknowledged. A few months ago, three University of Rochester political scientists—Avidit Acharya, Matthew Blackwell, and Maya Sen—published an astonishing study. They discovered that a strong link exists between the proportion of slaves residing in a southern county in 1860 and the racial conservatism (and voting habits) of its white residents today. The more slave-intensive a southern county was 150 years ago, the more conservative and Republican its contemporary white residents. The authors tested their findings against every plausible control factor—for instance, whether the results could be explained simply by population density—but the correlation held. Higher levels of slave ownership in 1860 made white Southerners more opposed to affirmative action, score higher on the anti-black-affect scale, and more hostile to Democrats.

The authors suggest that the economic shock of emancipation, which suddenly raised wages among the black labor pool, caused whites in the most slave-intensive counties to “promote local anti-black sentiment by encouraging violence towards blacks, racist norms and cultural beliefs,” which “produced racially hostile attitudes that have been passed down from parents to children.” The scale of the effect they found is staggering. Whites from southern areas with very low rates of slave ownership exhibit attitudes similar to whites in the North—an enormous difference, given that Obama won only 27 percent of the white vote in the South in 2012, as opposed to 46 percent of the white vote outside the South.

The Rochester study should, among other things, settle a very old and deep argument about the roots of America’s unique hostility to the welfare state. Few industrialized economies provide as stingy aid to the poor as the United States; in none of them is the principle of universal health insurance even contested by a major conservative party. Conservatives have long celebrated America’s unique strand of anti-statism as the product of our religiosity, or the tradition of English liberty, or the searing experience of the tea tax. But the factor that stands above all the rest is slavery.

The article is lengthy but well worth the read.

Chait, who is one of the best political journalists in America these days, also has a piece in NY Mag, dated April 23rd, asking “Is the rising Democratic majority doomed?” The short answer: no, but the Repubs are not totally down and out.

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Obamacare: Here to stay

Dallas TX, August 20 2013

Dallas, August 20 2013

So says Theda Skocpol of Harvard University, who’s one of the smartest social scientists around, in an essay in TPM Café, in which she tells Republicans that they “need to suck it up and learn to love Obamacare,” as there’s no way that they’ll be able to repeal the law, now or ever. She thus begins

A big U.S. social insurance program is enacted into law – only to face delays and fierce controversies. Regulations are imposed on businesses and taxes collected well before citizens get sizable benefits. Right-wingers fight for repeal or evisceration, and many on the left are also disgruntled. Outright failure remains possible for years after enactment.

Obamacare? No, we’re talking about the early life of the program called Social Security, now hugely popular and regarded as virtually untouchable politically.

Social Security was enacted in 1935, but no one got a check until the first small benefit was issued in 1940. Scheduled revenues vital to the program’s viability were repeatedly delayed, and conservatives and leftists tried to scuttle it altogether. Not until the mid-1950s did Eisenhower-era Republicans finally accept Social Security; and it took until the early 1970s for generous benefits to make it widely popular.

Compared to this long story, Affordable Care is advancing at warp speed. Sure, Republicans are still fighting a rear-guard war for “repeal.” And an impatient media blows every tiny glitch into Armageddon. Political reporters have a vested interest in the notion that Obamacare is still up for grabs if Republicans take control of the Senate next November.

But let’s look at the unfolding realities, starting with the health insurance facts.

Read the rest of the essay here.

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Paris 01 05 2013

Henri Guaino, sarkozyste du premier plan, had a full-page tribune on the Front National in Le Monde dated December 17th (voici le lien), explaining why, from his Gaullist standpoint, the FN’s world-view and political posture is antithetical to his, of why he feels no affinity whatever with this political party. Now I am not a fan of Guaino, to put it mildly. I have felt no affinity whatever with him over the years—and particularly during his five-year stint at the Élysée as Sarkozy’s right-hand man—and have made unkind statements about him on occasions too numerous to count. But giving credit where credit is due, I have to say that his tribune is excellent. As a principled man of the right, he nails what it is about the FN that renders it beyond the pale. The tribune merits being read in its entirety but here is one noteworthy passage

D’où vient alors ce malaise indicible que j’éprouve comme tant d’autres face à ce parti et qui m’empêchera toujours de pactiser avec lui ? Il vient du sentiment, dont je ne peux pas me défaire, qu’il y a dans sa conception du pouvoir quelque chose de monstrueusement inhumain et que le problème posé par le FN est dans ce que j’appellerais, au risque assumé de la polémique, son ADN. C’est une métaphore. Il ne s’agit nullement ici de biologie. Mais, j’y reviens, les partis comme toute collectivité humaine, comme les nations, ont une histoire, une expérience, une culture qui leur façonne une manière d’être et de penser.

Si avec les responsables du FN, il n’y a jamais de débat possible, seulement des affrontements, c’est parce que ce parti a encore et toujours besoin d’ennemis. Sa nature est d’être toujours l’instrument d’une colère ; aujourd’hui, l’immense colère qu’éprouvent tous ceux qui se sentant dépossédés de leur vie veulent dire non à tout parce qu’ils ont le sentiment que c’est l’ultime refuge, l’ultime expression de leur liberté.

Reading Guaino’s description of the FN’s DNA, I was reminded of the Tea Party GOP. The need to have enemies, to demonize part of society… For the anecdote, I mentioned Guaino’s tribune yesterday to two of my American students, which led to comments on American politics. One said that her mother, a lifelong Republican, was now calling herself an independent on account of the GOP’s right-wing lurch. The other said that her father, an investment banker and Republican, was so fed up with the party that he may vote for Hillary Clinton in ’16. As I’ve said before, the Tea Party GOP = FN. A not insignificant number of Republicans want nothing to do with the party if it is taken over by its extremist wing. And an even more significant number of principled French conservatives want nothing to do with the FN. Which is why the UMP will not, malgré tout, enter into any kind of formal alliance with the Frontistes, now or in the future.

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MAC43_ANGRY WHITE MALE Joe Raedle  Getty Images

For the coming years, at least, so argues Harvard social scientist Theda Skocpol in a must read article, “Why the Tea Party’s Hold Persists,” in the Winter 2014 issue of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas. A few quotes

In 2011, Vanessa Williamson and I published our book The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism [AWAV: It's an excellent book], which used a full panoply of research—from interviews and local observations to media and website analysis and tracking of national surveys—to explain the dynamics of this radical movement. We showed how bottom-up and top-down forces intersect to give the Tea Party both leverage over the Republican Party and the clout to push national politics sharply to the right.

At the grassroots, volunteer activists formed hundreds of local Tea Parties, meeting regularly to plot public protests against the Obama Administration and place steady pressure on GOP organizations and candidates at all levels. At least half of all GOP voters sympathize with this Tea Party upsurge. They are overwhelmingly older, white, conservative-minded men and women who fear that “their country” is about to be lost to mass immigration and new extensions of taxpayer-funded social programs (like the Affordable Care Act) for low- and moderate-income working-aged people, many of whom are black or brown. Fiscal conservatism is often said to be the top grassroots Tea Party priority, but Williamson and I did not find this to be true. Crackdowns on immigrants, fierce opposition to Democrats, and cuts in spending for the young were the overriding priorities we heard from volunteer Tea Partiers, who are often, themselves, collecting costly Social Security, Medicare, and veterans benefits to which they feel fully entitled as Americans who have “paid their dues” in lifetimes of hard work.

Of course Tea Partiers are for social insurance. Just so long as they’re the beneficiaries—and not categories of the population they don’t like (“the undeserving poor,” moochers and other takers, etc).

Here is the key point: Even though there is no one center of Tea Party authority—indeed, in some ways because there is no one organized center—the entire gaggle of grassroots and elite organizations amounts to a pincers operation that wields money and primary votes to exert powerful pressure on Republican officeholders and candidates. Tea Party influence does not depend on general popularity at all. Even as most Americans have figured out that they do not like the Tea Party or its methods, Tea Party clout has grown in Washington and state capitals. Most legislators and candidates are Nervous Nellies, so all Tea Party activists, sympathizers, and funders have had to do is recurrently demonstrate their ability to knock off seemingly unchallengeable Republicans (ranging from Charlie Crist in Florida to Bob Bennett of Utah to Indiana’s Richard Lugar). That grabs legislators’ attention and results in either enthusiastic support for, or acquiescence to, obstructive tactics. The entire pincers operation is further enabled by various right-wing tracking organizations that keep close count of where each legislator stands on “key votes”—including even votes on amendments and the tiniest details of parliamentary procedure, the kind of votes that legislative leaders used to orchestrate in the dark.

Tea Party Republicans don’t care if they’re unpopular, BTW, because they disdain people who don’t like them (they, the Tea Partiers, being “real Americans”). If it were up to the GOP right-wing, there would no doubt be a return to the suffrage censitaire (I’ll develop this at a future date).

The bottom line is sobering. Anyone concerned about the damage Tea Party forces are inflicting on American politics needs to draw several hard-headed conclusions.

For the conclusions, read Skocpol’s article.

The article is one of several in a symposium on the Tea Party in Democracy’s Winter issue. I haven’t read the others yet but they look most interesting—and are authored by well-known specialists of the subject:

Republican Leaders’ Two Choices by Alan I. Abramowitz

The Anti-Jacksonians by Sean Wilentz

R.I.P. Republican Internationalism by Leslie H. Gelb & Michael Kramer

Will the Tea Party Outlast Obama? by Christopher S. Parker

The Tea Party and the 2016 Nomination by Dave Weigel

Bonne lecture.

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