Saturday, March 20, 2010

A Guide for Those Traumatized by Right-Wing, Fear-Mongering Lies on Health Care Refortm

[This article also appears on You can access it from my author page here.]

With a historic vote on health care reform set for tomorrow, this is how far the right has stooped: Rep. Paul Broun of Georgia said on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives:

"If ObamaCare passes, that free insurance card that's in people's pockets is gonna be as worthless as a Confederate dollar after the War Between The States - the Great War of Yankee Aggression."

With the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office finding that the health care bill under consideration in the House would reduce both health care costs and the deficit over the next ten years, the right is running out of legitimate arguments against the bill. Not that Republicans ever really offered legitimate criticisms, relying almost entirely on lies and fear mongering (Death panels! Government takeover!) to scare off support.

Health care is a complicated issue that has components that are moral (Should people in one of the wealthiest countries in the world be allowed to die or go bankrupt because they can't afford care?), ideological (How should an important need like health care be provided to the people?), and economic (What are we going to do about spiraling health care costs that are taking up more and more of the budgets of American families, as well as those of the states and the federal government?) in nature. To reduce this nuanced issue to short, sound-bite size proclamations is ridiculously over-simplified. But since the right has had no trouble doing so in an effort to scare Americans away from supporting reform, I figure I have no choice but to provide more accurate characterizations than some of the common themes being pushed on the right.

- Stephen Moore, a right-wing economics writer who appeared on Bill Maher's Real Time last night, announced to the audience: "Forty-eight hours from now, we're going to have socialized medicine." Socialism is a common theme of Obama opponents who seem to feel that if they lie about Obama being a socialist often enough, people will start to believe it, even absent any actual evidence to support the claim. But there is nothing about the health care reform bill that should be characterized as socialized medicine, which is when the government, rather than private insurers or medical institutions, provides care to its citizens. Rather, the bill would be an affirmation and expansion of the capitalist-private U.S. health care structure, handing the health insurance companies a bit more than 30 million new customers. And without a public option, the private insurers will maintain a stranglehold on the market. In fact, Republicans, who love subsidizing corporations almost as much as they love cutting taxes for the wealthy, should be doing back flips that government money will be going directly into corporate coffers, as subsidies for those who can't pay for health care are directed to the health insurers.

Personally, I would prefer a single-payer system that takes the profit-obsessed insurance companies, who make money by denying care to those who need it, out of the health care equation. But this health reform bill doesn't do that. Rather, it maintains the primacy of health insurers at the center of the American health care system.

As Gavin Newsom pointed out on Real Time, if this bill is so bad for health insurance companies, why did their stock prices go up yesterday when news started to emerge that passage of the bill looked more probable?

- Another common theme from the right is that health care reform will "put the government between you and your doctor," the idea being to scare Americans into believing that under health care reform, they will no longer be able to make decisions with their doctor alone. This one would be funny if it wasn't so tragic. Under the status quo, patients aren't allowed to make decisions alone with their doctors. Instead, health insurance companies decide what treatment Americans get (or, too often, don't get). And, actually, under the status quo, the government stands in the way of you and your doctor making decisions, since it allows health insurers to raise your rates, deny your coverage, and kick you off of insurance completely, all without you having legal recourse to use antitrust or many other legal principles to challenge these decisions or choose another provider (that would apply to nearly any other industry). Why? Because of the special legal protections health insurers currently enjoy. Since health care reform leaves insurers in charge of health care, the government will not be intervening in the basic dynamic of medical decisions that is currently in place, except to put more power in the hands of patients and their doctors, since insurance companies will no longer be allowed to refuse coverage because of preexisting conditions, nor will they be able to drop (or charge extra) patients who get sick.

- Conservatives often argue that we can't afford health reform because of the federal debt. But, again, the CBO found that the bill would reduce the deficit by $138 billion over the next ten years, and another $1.2 trillion over the following ten years, due, in part, to a cut in the growth of Medicare spending (a top contributor to the deficit). This should be the kind of bill that fiscal conservatives can support, since it is paid for (unlike the Bush tax cuts) and reduces rather than adds to the deficit. A sister right-wing claim, as Moore made on Real Time, is that the bill is a jobs-killing big tax hike. It should come as no surprise that this claim, too, is a giant load of bull. Moore complained that small businesses will be devastated by reform, but, in fact, the bill looks to help these employers. A White House report found: "From 2002 to 2008, the fraction of firms with 3 to 9 employees offering health insurance to their workers declined from 58 to 49 percent." The status quo isn't working. The bill will help small businesses to be better able to insure its employees.

I don't pretend to be able to convince nutjobs who refer to the Civil War as the Great War of Yankee Aggression, and who make up nonsense about legislation in order to scare people away from supporting it, that they are wrong. But what I can do is point out the lies in the hope that those who are trying to understand what is in the bill can better understand what the legislation would really do. As the president has said over and over, the current system is damaging our country, siphoning more and more of our resources with less and less payoff for our people. We pay more for health care than any other country, and yet our care doesn't rank near the top, and we've left tens of millions of people without access to health care. We are not getting any bang for our buck, and, in any event, we can't afford to continue to pour more and more money into the pockets of health insurance companies. The status quo is far scarier than anything in the legislation under consideration.

The health care reform bill scheduled for a vote tomorrow is not perfect by any means, but it is a step in the right direction. And, most importantly, the bill does not do what the right is saying it will. It doesn't socialize medicine, it doesn't take decisions out of the hands of patients and doctors (any more than they already are), and it won't bankrupt the country.

Tomorrow could be a truly historic day in American history. And I promise that if the bill passes, when the sun comes up on Monday, we won't be living in the Soviet Union, as much as those on the right would like you to believe otherwise.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Fearful and Scheming Republicans Are Playing into al-Qaida's Strategy

[This article also appears on You can access it from my author page here.]

You might have missed an AP article on al-Qaida that slipped nearly unnoticed through yesterday's news cycle. The piece reports that the terrorist operation is moving towards smaller-scale attacks like the Christmas Day attempted bombing of a flight to Detroit. Why? For a reason the Republicans will not like very much.

First, one thing that is important to consider, which is not addressed in the article, is that recent U.S. successes in counter-terrorism (under the administration of a president Republicans insist is endangering the country's security) have weakened al-Qaida's financial and operational power. As we learned today from Nicholas Sabloff and Nico Pitney, al-Qaida's declining strength, along with the Obama administration's effective anti-terrorism efforts, have led to the Taliban moving to distance itself from al-Qaida.

The main argument of the AP article is that al-Qaida has figured out that it can cause chaos even with a failed attack (like the Christmas Day attempted bombing), because, in essence, terrified Republicans lose their minds and try to score political points by criticizing the administration, resulting in the exact kind of panic and uncertainty al-Qaida leaders are looking for. Put another way, the Republicans are, in their fear and cold political calculation, doing exactly what al-Qaida leaders want them to do.

This shouldn't be shocking to read. After all, George W. Bush's ineffective, misguided, fear-infused, ideology-driven response to the 9/11 attacks--invading Iraq, moving focus away from al-Qaida in Afghanistan, curbing civil rights, generating ill feelings around the world, spreading and fraying American military capabilities, running up a massive debt through two unpaid-for wars, and running the U.S. economy into the ground--played right into al-Qaida's hands. In fact, it's likely that if Osama bin Laden could have written a script for Bush on Sept. 12, 2001, it wouldn't have looked much different from what Bush actually did in the next few years.

I am tired of Republicans weakening our country through their dual obsessions: fear and putting scoring political points against the president over the best interests of the American people. As Steve Benen perceptively observed after the Christmas Day attempted bombing, the Republican response was "a collective display of pants-wetting." What has happened to the party of Ronald Reagan and John Wayne? Of G. Gordon Liddy putting his hand in a flame? The narrative in the country was always that the Republicans were the tough guys and the Democrats were the wimps, and while I admit the GOP shows more balls in governing than the timid Democrats, when it comes to terrorism, it seems quite clear the parties' actions don't match the reputations anymore.

On issue after issue, the Democrats have shown resolve in the face of the terrorists (at least until their resolve wavers under political pressure), while the Republicans have shown nothing but panic and opportunism. Get an enemy leader in your custody and what do you do? Republicans, in fear, scream, "Torture him until he talks!", while Democrats are braver, putting the principles on which the nation was founded above the fear of attack (putting aside for a second the fact that torture isn't effective; as we saw yesterday, you can get information from prisoners without torturing them). How do you bring one of these leaders to justice? Again, the Republicans are all about fear. "We can't try them in court! We can't have them in our borders, even in our highest-security prison! What if they escape? They can hurt us! The country isn't strong enough to handle it!" Meanwhile, Democrats say (again, at least until they bend to political pressure), "We are a strong enough country that we don't have to drop everything we believe in to keep these criminals in Cuba. We are strong enough to safely imprison them in this country, and our justice system has the capacity to try and convict these individuals for their crimes."

And when it comes to terror attacks? After the Christmas Day attempted attack, the Obama administration quickly looked into what happened and what could be improved in anti-terrorism policy for the future. The Republicans? Their response involved pointing fingers of blame and fearfully complaining we weren't safe. They resembled a woman in a 1940s Hollywood movie jumping on a table to avoid a mouse on the ground.

I thought as Americans we pride ourselves on our resilience and courage? Is it only the members of the military who have to display these traits? During World War II, citizens stepped up, rationed goods that were in short supply, and worked in the factories to help supply the military. We, as a country, stood together and showed toughness, sending a message we wouldn't be bullied out of our way of life by the Nazis. Now? Republicans seem not to trust our military and intelligence apparatuses to protect us. They are driven by fear. I'm sick of it.

It's time for Republicans to show the same steeliness in opposing Osama bin Laden that they do opposing the president.

Which brings us to the second part of the Republicans' conduct that helps al-Qaida and makes us less safe: the political calculation. When Bush was in office, if a Democrat merely suggested that maybe the president's policies in Iraq weren't working, he or she was accused of not being patriotic. What a difference a few years make. The rules have apparently changed. Now, every terrorist incident seems to be treated by the GOP as a chance to score points against Obama, with no concern that the bickering and false accusations not only unsettle Americans, but that the reaction is exactly what the terrorists want. Of course, I would never argue that a member of Congress should not speak out if he or she honestly believes a government policy is putting us at risk. But do you really think the Republican outrage is sincere? Given that Obama has been, by any measure, more successful weakening al-Qaida than Bush ever was, it's particularly odious the way the Republicans have tried to stir fear by questioning the Obama administration's commitment to fighting terrorism.

Simply put, the "collective display of pants-wetting" and politicization of terrorism by the Republicans are making America less safe. I wish the GOP would find its inner John Wayne. It's hard enough to fight those willing to die in the pursuit of harming Americans without fearful Republicans seeking to score political points making the terrorists' job easier.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Attention Democrats: The House Is on Fire, But the Solution is to Grab a Hose, Not Cower in the Corner

[This article also appears on You can access it from my author page here.]

I have been known in some circles for my lousy analogies, so I'm going to bust one out now. I have a message for the president and the Democrats in congress: The house is on fire. So the question is: What are you going to do? Here's a hint: If you stay in the house, you will burn to death.

Let's take a step back. In November of 2008, Barack Obama won an overwhelming victory over John McCain, carrying previously safe red states like North Carolina, Virginia and Indiana, while the Senate and the House saw their majorities increase to overwhelming advantages. Now, 16 months and a special election victory for a Tea Party-supported senate candidate in Massachusetts later, the Republicans are gunning to take control of both houses of Congress this November (ambitious, considering the Democrats hold a 59-41 advantage in the Senate), and you read stories of potentially precarious Senate elections for the Democrats in traditional rock-solid blue states like California, New York and Delaware.

The house is on fire.

The question isn't whether this is a fair state of affairs or not.

Clearly, it was unreasonable to think that after eight years of George W. Bush and his allies in Congress systematically destroying every facet of the United States of America, through a botched unnecessary war, the near collapse of the financial system, the amassing of massive amounts of federal debt, and general incompetence and disdain for government, any new administration could set things right in 16 months. The damage Bush did to this country will take generations to undue (his activist, extreme-right-wing judicial appointments will probably still be on the court when the babies born today graduate from high school), if it can be undone at all.

And the Republicans in Congress have not helped to fix our broken country. They have stood united in opposing any and every solution the president offered (even if he proposed policies they had embraced in the past), all in an effort to win political points and protect big corporations (like health insurers) at the expense of average citizens. And they have lied and fear-mongered to accomplish their aims (from inventing death panels to labeling the president a socialist). In the wake of a near-collapse of the financial industry, which nearly brought down the world's economy, all due to a lack of regulation and oversight, these Republicans haven't wavered in their support of the banks at the expense of the American people, refusing to agree to the kind of regulations that would prevent the financial industry from imploding again (after all, it's not like the big banks have seen the errors of their ways and stopped engaging in economy-threatening risky practices).

But having said all of that, Democrats have to look in the mirror, too, and ask themselves if they have shown the courage and strength necessary to lead. They have to decide how they allowed a committed minority of 40 (and then 41) Republican senators to bully them out of coming together to pass legislation to start fixing some of the problems left to the country by eight years of Bush incompetence. Especially after the mandate they were handed in November 2008.

Voters are angry, and while it is illogical that people seem to be looking to break the gridlock in Washington by voting in Republicans who will, first and only, be concerned with perpetuating the gridlock in Washington, the anger is based on real concerns. Unemployment is high, and the government appears to be more concerned with the health of banks and health insurers than with the well-being of struggling average Americans. The American people voted for change in 2008, and you can understand if they feel like they're not getting it (even if you can't understand why they aren't blaming scheming, lying Republicans at least equally to the seemingly feckless Democrats).

In short, the current state of affairs is what it is. The Democrats can't go back in time, nor can they give a nationwide seminar to educate American citizens about the Jim Bunning-like obstructionism and Orrin Hatch-like lying of the Republican Party (or the racism and ignorance of the Tea Party movement).

No, the Democrats have to decide what to do about it now. Or, to go back to my analogy, to figure out what kind of action to take now that the house is on fire.

It seems to me that the fire has made too many Democrats timid. They are either doing nothing, or they're pointing fingers at the malfeasance of the Republicans. Worse, many think that if they retreat and act more like Republicans, they will be rewarded by their constituents in November, as if campaigning as Republican Lite was ever a winning formula for Democrats. They are looking for an opportunity to vote against health care reform, as if their opponents won't plaster the airwaves with ads touting their original yes vote.

The current plan of too many Democrats is to hang out in the house, cower in the corner, and wait to burn to death. Call me crazy, but I think this is a lousy strategy.

Here is a better one: Do something. Pass legislation like health care reform. Polls show that Americans support the components of health care reform, including the public option, but they oppose the actual bills that got through the House and Senate, thanks largely to Republicans demonizing and lying about them, but also fairly seeing them as the product of behind-closed-door deals that feel shady. The best way to prove the Republican lie machine wrong is to pass legislation (even if through reconciliation) so Americans can see that reform isn't the horrible government power grab the Republicans tell them it is.

(As an aside, one piece of proof that I'm right about this is the president's anti-terrorism policy. The Republicans try and demonize him as soft, but, so far, it's not working. Why? Because real-life events have proven the GOP fear mongers wrong. We've been arresting and killing al-Qaida and Taliban leaders at a rate that makes Bush look like a free-love-spouting hippie, so it's hard to argue that Obama isn't protecting the nation.)

And what if the Republicans filibuster Democratic efforts? I know, it takes 60 votes to get anything through the Senate (or, in some cases, 100 votes ... thanks Sen. Bunning for showing the world what you and your party are really about). But my question is: So what if the Republicans filibuster everything? Let them. Why are the Democrats so afraid of this happening? Make the GOP reveal to the American people who they are protecting. Pass comprehensive financial reform legislation and let the Republicans filibuster it. Then it will be clear: The Democrats support the people and the economy, and the Republicans support the banks. Pass the Senate's health care reform bill in the House, and then fix it in the Senate through reconciliation. If that can't be done, bring an air-tight, paid-for, comprehensive health care reform bill (even with a public option) to the floor and make the Republicans filibuster it. Then the GOP will be revealed as the insurance company-protecting, sick-American-ignoring party it is.

The only way Democrats will escape the burning house is by acting. And the president can lead the way in this regard, since no Democrat has the ability to cut through the crap and make a case for an issue like Obama does.

Democrats, get out of the burning house and grab a fire hose. Start taking action to improve your lot. If you don't, you can join Rick Santorum, Lincoln Chafee, Gordon Smith, John Sununu and the other politicians swept out of office in the GOP purges of 2006 and 2008. But if you fight back by passing legislation (or forcing filibusters) and showing the American people that you understand what they are angry about, you have a chance. At least you'll go down fighting for something important, rather that as cowards, too scared to act.