Monday, June 26, 2017

We Need to Talk

Mitch McConnell finally confessed to his sins this week in going public with the Senate version of Republican health care. Of course, the bill is a travesty. It does not really have anything to do with healthcare at all, except as an obstacle to its true goal of massive tax cuts for the rich. Amazingly, the bill is not only more dishonest than its House counterpart, but it may actually be worse in the severity of its outcomes. So much for the Senate as the more reasonable body,

But here is truly scary part. In discussing the possibility of this atrocity becoming law, the press talks about a handful of Republican Senators. There is, rightly, no mention of what the Democrats might do. Sure, this partly reflects the fact that no Democrat is expected to vote for the bill. But it also reflects the fact that the Democrats have done nothing to make this bill harder to support. In part, this is because they refuse to acknowledge one truth that Donald Trump has accidentally told: we the people are now worse off with respect to healthcare than we were when the Affordable Care Act first went into effect. This is not for any of the reasons the Republicans or Trump name, but it is true all the same. The Affordable Care Act was not the success that it should have been, but Democrats need to explain that its failure was that it its design was vulnerable both to the trickery of the insurance industry and to outright sabotage by the Republicans. To explain, let me talk about my own situation.

I am the sole breadwinner for a family of four. My job is good enough that I do not qualify for the subsidies provided under the ACA, but I have my company health plan. My family and I have a host of pre-existing conditions, so we are heavy users of healthcare and we need a large menu of medicines each month. Over the past seven years, I have seen a steady increase in the dollar amount that comes out of my check for health care, and my out of pocket expenses have shot up as the insurance companies have gotten better at imposing copays and deductibles. So I am grateful for the fact that I can get insurance at all, given the pre-existing conditions. I am glad that my daughter, who is turning 22, can still be on my plan. And I understand that my health care expenses are still much less than they would be without the ACA. But my family and I are hurting, and Hillary Clinton is not our president in part because she did not sufficiently acknowledge and address this hurt. The situation is worse for my brother-in-law and his family. They do not have jobs that provide them benefits like mine, and they live in a state where a Republican governor and legislature blocked the Medicaid expansion that would have meant so much to them. For the first few years of the ACA, they had to choose whether to use the healthcare they could afford for themselves or their children, and of course they chose their children. Thankfully, they have now reached the point where they no longer have to make that devil’s bargain, but we were really worried about them for quite some time. Again, the provision regarding pre-existing conditions in the ACA meant that they could get healthcare for themselves once their job situations improved enough that they could afford it.

I am sure this country is full of families like mine, and like my brother-in-law’s. The Democrats are simply not talking to us. They are not acknowledging our hurt. Instead, they are reacting to what the Republicans are doing, and thereby letting Donald Trump and his allies control the conversation. Hillary Clinton spoke vaguely on the campaign trail of improving the ACA, but I regard myself is more politically aware than most Americans, and I don’t know what improvements she thought were needed. Only Bernie Sanders offered a solution, but he got bogged down in the question of how to pay for it in a way that suggested he was unable to master the details needed to make universal healthcare the law of the land. His approach also would have failed to persuade most Americans to support him in the face of Republican fearmongering. I have explained before how universal healthcare can be sold to the American people, but I have yet to hear any Democrat make this pitch. Barring that, the Democrats must explain all of the ways the ACA has made lives better, and all the ways it could be made to do so much more. They must help the American people to see how much better the ACA could be if the Republicans were not so intent on its destruction. One way or another, they must take back the conversation, and make the Republicans react to them for a change. The results of the midterm elections next year will depend on whether or not they can get it done.

I believe Americans are ready to hear the truth. Here is Sheryl Crow with the alternative we have now:

Monday, June 19, 2017

The Best Defense

The Washington Post has a slogan on their website that is very apt right now: “Democracy dies in darkness”. From the struggles in the House of Representatives to get the atrocity known as the American Health Care Act (AHCA) passed, Mitch McConnell might have taken the lesson that this was a terrible bill for the American people. Instead, he decided the real lesson was that the Senate version must be kept secret as long as possible in order to get it passed. Even his fellow Republicans in the Senate must not have the time to read the full bill before having to vote on it, and under no circumstances should the public have a chance to react until the bill was law. This is darkness at its finest, and democracy stolen again by the Party of voter suppression. It has meant that, in the face of severely limited news of how the new law was being shaped, press coverage has been overshadowed by other issues and developments. Democrats have decided to hope that it will be enough that the public prefers keeping Obamacare to the public efforts so far by the Republicans to repeal and replace it. It will not be enough, but there is still time to do something about it. If preserving the status quo was the best defense against Republican aggression, I would be writing now about how the presidency of Hillary Clinton looks as we approached the six month mark.

What we need instead is a way to put the subject of health care back in the forefront of public discussion. To begin with, let’s take the wind out of one of the Republicans’ favorite arguments by admitting that Obamacare has not delivered on all of its promises. But Democrats need to reframe that argument. They need to say that the Affordable Care Act was not crafted well enough to withstand Republican sabotage, and certainly not to withstand the onslaught of a united Republican government. They also need to say that prices were not controlled as well as they should have been, because Obamacare still makes the American people pay for items that have no bearing on health care outcomes: marketing costs, obscenely high CEO paychecks, and stock dividends for health insurers and big pharmaceutical companies. Democrats furthermore must coopt one of Donald Trump’s favorite promises, to deliver better healthcare that costs every American less. To make all of this news worthy, the Democrats in the Senate must introduce their own healthcare plan in the Senate, and force a very public debate on it. Let it become the standard that any Republican bill will be measured against. During the Obama presidency, it was common for Democrats to point out that the Republicans never presented an alternative plan. If only for that reason, it is essential that there be a Democratic alternate plan now.

I am talking, of course, about universal healthcare, and I have previously laid out the pitch for it here. Bernie Sanders lost the primaries to Hillary Clinton while advocating universal health care, so why should the Democrats play this risky card? First, Sanders never made the capitalist case for it, as I have done. But Sanders also fell into a trap that Hillary Clinton laid for him during the campaign. He got bogged down in the numbers, and wound up proposing large tax increases for everybody to pay for his plan. In doing so, Sanders failed to make the point that universal healthcare will be paid for in large part with moneys that are now being spent on other health care programs, including Obamacare. So the actual funds needed to get from here to there are lot less than the total price tag for universal health care as a stand alone item. It is also not enough to say that it would be less than the average American spends now on health care. The Democrats and the press must explicitly state where those savings will come from. The public resents having to pay for corporate profits out of public funds, but that resentment needs to be harnessed.

Clearly, there isn’t much time, and the Democrats will not do this on their own. Activists must coalesce around this strategy, and start pushing for it immediately. We need to find a Democratic Senator who can be persuaded to introduce a new Democratic health alternative to the Republican plan. So much the better if this starts with someone other than Bernie Sanders, because that would be more newsworthy. The goal here is to control not only the discussion in the Senate, but also the news cycle. Imagine the reaction in the media if someone like Cory Booker were to introduce this with an impassioned speech on the floor of the Senate. That’s what needs ideally to happen, in order to steal this issue from Mitch McConnell’s darkness, and bring it back into the light where it belongs.

This week’s song has everything to do with the news cycle:

Monday, June 12, 2017

A Morality Play

The takeaways in the media from James Comey’s testimony last week were certainly interesting. For many, the argument to be had was over whether Comey was saying that Trump was guilty of obstruction of justice. Comey was very careful to not say that himself, but he also explained why not. Comey as a private citizen has no standing to bring that charge, and that legal distinction is important to him. Keep in mind that Comey was our nation’s top law enforcement officer until Trump fired him. However, his testimony was an offering to Robert Mueller. If Mueller wants to pursue the charge of obstruction, Comey just let him know what his evidence would be. The media also spent a lot of time on the Republican’s attempts to defend Trump. But if Trump was just inexperienced at governing, or just too immature at age 70 to know better, why did he have everyone leave the room, even waiving off Jared Kushner and Attorney General Jeff Sessions when they tried to stay behind, before discussing the Michael Flynn case with Comey. That was a clear act of intent. You do that only if you want to make sure there are no witnesses later to what you are about to do. If the Republican excuse that Trump was simply handling things the way he did as a businessman was true, that is very interesting information, but it doesn’t mean it wasn’t obstruction. It just means that when he pursued this tactic as a businessman, he grew used to it working so well that we never heard of it until now. Meanwhile, what Comey was willing to come right out and say was that Trump’s lies about the Comey firing constituted defamation of character. Comey knows that that is a legal charge, and that he has the standing as a private citizen to bring it. He is not a man to use the words without being fully aware of the legal implications.

But the larger picture is that the testimony gives the Democrats a huge marketing opportunity for the 2018 elections and beyond. The Republicans, in their responses to the Comey testimony, showed a complete lack of morality. When the Anthony Weiner sexting scandal arose, the Democrats had the decency to be ashamed that one of their own could behave in such a manner. Privately, that stance may well have involved cynical calculations, but the public act is what concerns me here. The Democrats make mistakes, but they have the good grace to be ashamed, and to apologize. The Republicans do not. John McCain surrendered the last claim he may have had to be the conscience of the Republican Party with his line of questioning. Republicans, faced with behavior that was clearly wrong, rush to explain why they are OK with it. And it’s not just the Comey testimony either. Donald Trump sat back and let the Republicans in the House and now in the Senate craft their own versions of a healthcare bill, and the results once again show a complete lack of morality. As long as there are tax cuts for their donors, Republicans simply do not care at all who their legislation hurts. Remember too that it was not the current Republican president who wove an elaborate tapestry of lies to get the nation into a completely unjustified war that may have been nothing more than a personal vendetta. Here again, there was no concern with the innocent Iraqi or even American lives that would be lost. The Republicans do pretend to care what happens to the veterans of that war, but their legislative actions say otherwise

. So the Democrats must put all of this together, and start making the case to the American people that the Republicans are a once respected legislative partner that has lost their way. It is not simply that Donald Trump is immoral, although he certainly is. But he is a Republican for a reason, and the Democrats need to say soon and often what that reason is. Make Republican a bad word, in the same way that the Republicans made being a liberal anathema. There were articles last year about how the Republicans were destroying themselves by making Trump their standard bearer. What we should have learned from his victory is that that destruction will not happen by itself. We need to help it along, and we were just handed an easy way to get started.

Muddy Waters gets the nod for the song this week:

Monday, June 5, 2017

The Logic of Trumpism

There have been many attempts to understand how anyone could have voted for Donald Trump, and how anyone could still support him now. In this blog, I myself have marshalled various logical arguments that one might use to try to turn someone from the path of Trumpism. But there is a hard core of Trump support that does not respond to appeals based on the kind of logic most of us understand. They have a weird logic of their own, in which the worse things get under Trump, the closer they are to their goal. Fortunately, this hard core represents the floor for Trump’s approval rating, and the figure now appears to be 35% or less of the voters. That’s still enough to win elections in some parts of the country, but not to keep control of the nation as a whole. For now, these people are aided and abetted by cynics like Paul Ryan, who believe that they can control the Trumpites, and use their support to advance their own agenda. Ryan is from the faction I described over the last two weeks, who can not tell the difference between the financial markets and the economy. The Trumpites, however, have a completely different set of beliefs and goals.

The Trumpites believe that our system of laws and governance has failed. They do not distinguish between themselves and anyone the system may have worked for, believing instead that it has failed everyone. Hillary Clinton’s promise to defend the status quo was the last thing they wanted to hear. Where Bernie Sanders promoted the argument that it was a moral imperative to do better, the failure of his vision for positive change only reinforced the Trumpites’ idea that the system we have would never allow such change to occur. It doesn’t matter who has rigged the system in this worldview, only that the system is rigged. The only way to change this pattern, in the eyes of the Trumpites, is to first utterly destroy the system we have now. For these supporters, Donald Trump’s job, the one they helped elect him to do, is to be the agent of this destruction. Trump’s performance over the last two weeks was a great success in this view. Trump placed strain on our alliances in Europe and pledged to remove us from the Paris Accord. It’s all good, the Trumpites feel, because it attacks the established order of the world. Trump’s budget represented a frontal assault on the welfare state, and that too must be destroyed.

The Trumpites did not suddenly emerge during the election last year. They represent the logical end point of ideas the Republicans have been promoting for years, only in a context that establishment Republicans never imagined. Paul Ryan is only the most recent in a series of warriors devoted to shredding the social safety net and undoing the legacy of the New Deal. Grover Norquist has long promoted the notion of “starving the beast”, cutting taxes to the point where the government could no longer afford to help the needy. Republicans have also long promoted the notions of restoring American purity in their arguments for immigration reform. But, where establishment Republicans pursue these goals within our systems of governance and laws, Trumpites want to see it all destroyed. They perceive a government that has never done anything for them, and they have no further use for it. They have been taught by Republicans for years that it is shameful to take government handouts, that it is a sign of moral weakness, so why should they care if those “handouts” cease to exist? And why should they care if those who are morally weak suffer as they wreak their destruction?

The Trumpites are of course what the media have decided to call the “alt right”. Given my formulation, you can see how evangelical Christians fit in. Trump, for them, is a deeply flawed human being, but he is the agent of change who will bring on the end days. While certainly a sinner himself, his proposals will redeem him by punishing the real sinners, and cleansing our society. The racial and ethnic implications of this make it clear why the Trumpites include racist and neo-nazi organizations. What may be less clear is the fact that some former progressives also fall into this camp. I touched on how this can be with my comment earlier about Bernie Sanders. Look up the story of a man named David Horowitz. Horowitz was, at one time, very involved in the left wing politics of the Vietnam War era. He was even an editor at Ramparts. But one day, he woke up disillusioned, and quickly became a rabid “conservative”. Horowitz was an important mover behind the scenes in last year’s election, with Trump benefiting greatly from his help.

On the left, we also feel a great deal of anger. We find it hard to accept a system that can not give us either universal healthcare or sensible gun control, even in the face of clear public support for both policies. The vitriol that was exchanged during the primaries between the Sanders and Clinton camps was a symptom of this frustration. We must be aware that, as Yoda said, “that way leads to the dark side.” Trumpism is that dark side, and David Horowitz is proof that any of us can go there. So engaging with the Trumpites and trying to reason with them is dangerous for us. Their anger may prove contagious. The Trumpites are properly understood not as some edgy new genre, “alt right”, but as dangerous extremists, right wing anarchists who represent a tangible threat to our way of life. And they should not be allowed to call themselves patriots as they trample on the Constitution. Patriots can believe that our system of laws and governance is ailing, as long as we recall that the means for a cure are built into the system itself. I have a primary to vote in on Tuesday, where I will do my bit to try to affect a cure.

Jackson Browne wrote Before the Deluge in 1974. At the time, all of the implications of the loss of 1960s idealism were not yet obvious, but Browne instinctively knew at least some of the dangers.