Category Archives: Politics

Let’s Hope the Premium Caps Stay in Place

The idea of government mandated health insurance makes me uneasy.

I’m willing to be taxed to support public health insurance (like public schools) or insurance assistance (like food stamps). But I don’t want to be forced to buy a service.

Hillary Clinton is the only candidate still really in the race whose plan includes a universal mandate. But it does have one saving grace, which I don’t think was in the first publicly available draft: premium caps (at least relative caps proportional to income).

Phew! Otherwise, it would really feel like we were being made to subsidize a cartel.

But one bit of caution: I know a thing or two about legislation… “minor” details are easy to change. A few years ago, I worked with a piece of legislation authorizing a New York State public authority to extend the life of its debt. When it was first enacted, this entity was to expire within a certain period (I will spare you the complicated conditions for determining the date). But all of that notwithstanding, there was a final date, a drop-deadline (“date certain” as politicians like to say) by which the entity absolutely had to pay off its debt and dissolve itself.

The language was “in any case no later than the earlier of” the drop deadline date OR the period determined by complicated calculations.

The legislature quietly changed the word “earlier” to “later.” Keep in mind, thirty years earlier, when the statute was first enacted, there was more than a little controversy about whether it was a worthwhile project AND about whether it was sufficiently sunset-ed (new verb alert). But the “revision” caused little public outcry. Very few even heard about it. As I recall, the new formulation ultimately didn’t work out because of unrelated political reasons (but the debt still got refinanced a different way).

When the dust finally settles on the health care debate, if we go the mandate route, let’s remember to watch carefully so that insurance companies’ quasi-mandate to keep rates down don’t quietly disappear from the books one fine session in Congress.

Tread Lightly, Hillary and Barack

With Mitt Romney out of the way, there are some interesting and frightening possibilities for Democrats.

McCain, who I think we all knew was going to win anyway, has time now to start looking presidential and appealing to those segments of his party that doubt his credentials as a Reagan-channeler (you are all thinking it, I’m just sayin’). He is strong with Independents and moderates already, and is widely perceived (wrongly, I believe) to be a person of enormous character. He could be very compelling for those who want to see Republicans hold on to the White House, even if that means making some allowances on certain strains of conservatism.

This will be no cake walk for Democrats. If anything — anything at all — happens to energize an anti-liberal sentiment, it will bring voters out in droves to vote AGAINST the progressive Democrat (and they’re both pretty progressive). As strong as these candidates look to us Democrats, their credibility with the general electorate is a lot more tenuous.

1. There is unfortunate lingering suspicion about race and gender.

2. Fiscal conservatives may not love McCain’s waffling on tax cuts, but they HATE socialized medicine.

3. Two kinds of Republican sentiments on globalization will work against the Dems. On the one hand, Republicans with protectionist and anti-immigration (an issue that is unfortunately conflated in the minds of many voters with outsourcing) tendencies will attack a democrat who seems to favor globalization, such as Obama. On the other hand, any misgivings about free trade agreements (like the ones Clinton has sometimes expressed) will be roundly condemned by pro-business, pro-Wall Street fiscal conservatives. Not that free trade AGREEMENTS are necessarily good for free trade… but that’s a different discussion.

McCain is vulnerable on some of these points too, but he seems to have mastered the ability to get away with that. Pro choice people support him, even though he is staunchly anti choice. Anti-war people support him. Though he wants to “Bomb Iran.” He’s been running as an “outsider” alternative to all the corruption in Washington, yet, he is a veteran Washington insider who was one of the “Keating Five” during the Savings and Loan scandal in 1989.

4. A Clinton-headed ticket might mobilize masses of otherwise disaffected right wingers who seem to harbor a deep and frequently irrational personal animosity toward her.

For all the dramatic rhetoric coming out of Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh, McCain is hugely popular among Republicans (check the election results) and, more importantly, he is palatable enough to a broad and seemingly unlikely cross section of the general electorate (for an old man he enjoys enormous support from young people, for instance) that the Democrats need to walk a VERY fine line and TREAD LIGHTLY ON EACH OTHER so as not to make DEMOCRATS (women, African Americans, Latinos, blue collar workers, liberal intellectuals, young idealists….) decide to stay home on November 4.

Shelby Steele Posits a Bogus World Where Obama Is “A Bound Man”

Shelby Steele contends that Obama is in a bind. The same bind every (liberal) black person must tackle because the liberal options are limited to wearing one of two masks: a “bargainer” or a “challenger.”

A “bargainer” is one who makes a tacit agreement to “give whites the benefit of doubt” that they are racially innocent if they “don’t hold [the bargainer’s] race against him.”

I’m not sure why this has to be a strategically donned “mask.” If you don’t hold my race against me, you aren’t being racist. So, why shouldn’t I treat you as though you’re not? It just seems fair.

In other contexts, Steele has said “this idea that we live in a hostile society that is determined to keep us down… is not true.” So, he seems to accept that racial hostility is no longer a factor in American life (but unlike those he criticizes, he seems willing to assume innocence even against all evidence to the contrary: according to him, during segregation, when there was “no white guilt,” everyone was expected to perform. He mentions that he had white teachers who expected him to do “what everyone was expected to do.” Interesting. Was he expected to sit in the same section of the bus, drink from the same fountain, and go to the same good schools with the better teachers, as “everybody else”? But… I digress.)

A “challenger” is a black person who openly criticizes racial animus or the history of racial oppression. Not sure what’s the problem with this, either, but then, I’m a liberal. I’m sure Steele would say that challengers cry “racism” whenever faced with any adversity instead of taking “responsibility” individually. (He says: “We are now 90% responsible for keeping ourselves down.”) I think there is some truth in the idea that a victim mentality in identity politics can harm the very people it purports to represent. My problem is with Steele’s extreme position on “responsibility” in terms of self-reliance alone and his philosophical willingness to absolve people of “responsibility” for actions that have damaging consequences for other people. (Reminds me of a doctor I briefly dated who expressed a general outrage against the whole idea of medical malpractice suits, declaring that patients should learn to “take responsibility” for their own injuries. The fact that he did things to them for which they paid him large sums of money apparently placed no responsibility on him.) But, again, I digress.

Steele’s Obama thesis, put in the most reasonable light, is something along the following lines:

Black politicians (in the liberal “white-guilt” based tradition) can’t have a nuanced and authentic point of view because they are expected to fit one of the two roles (bargainer or challenger). Blacks can succeed in niche demographics where those masks have appeal but they lose in broader fields. For example, bargainers frustrate blacks but do well enough with liberal whites. Challengers alienate whites but win in majority-minority constituencies. Anyone not strictly conforming to the accepted roles fail because they stir suspicions among both groups and are left wondering which is the “authentic” person. Something as vast as the general American electorate, therefore, can’t be won over because there simply aren’t enough of either black voters or the liberal white “civil rights” niche voters to carry a bargainer or a challenger, respectively. And, presumably, never the ’twain shall meet.

Of course, that conversation took place long before the South Carolina Primary.

I think one Mr. Barack Obama is proving you wrong, Dr. Steele.

In interviews with Brian Lehrer of WNYC and Harry Smith of CBS (see links below) Steele has explained the surge of black support for Obama, the bargainer, as really triggered by his success with white voters. In other words blacks will support him only if they think he can win with whites. Doesn’t this completely undercut the idea of a fissure between the “bargainer” and “challenger” roles?

Also, if liberal whites like bargainers because they assuage white guilt, why don’t they like guys like Shelby Steele who absolves them of even the “original” guilt? Interestingly, while Steele doesn’t seem to blame segregation or racial discrimination for anything, he did say to Bill Moyers (see link below) that whites (meaning LIBERAL whites) “use us, buy their innocence with us” but “nobody helps us.” I’m confused. I thought you didn’t want any help?

At any rate, it seems that Steele is the one trying to bind Obama by refusing to accept anything the Senator does at face value. He said to Bill Moyers he wanted to ask Obama “well, which is it? Is it your mama or is it Black Nationalism who’s responsible for you being here?” First of all it’s not clear what connection Obama has to black nationalism (does Steele mean race-sensitive liberal politics generally?) But either way, why does it have to be one or the other? Can’t it be that his mother brought him up to be capable but the politics shaped some of his core views (or helped shape a cultural context that allows black people to be taken seriously?)

A black liberal can do nothing right by Steele. Unless you share Steele’s conservative views you can’t even be genuine. He bills Clarence Thomas (an affirmative action hire who denounces affirmative action) as the Freest Black Man in America but told Brian Lehrer in an interview (see link below) that the “problem with bargainers” like Obama is that “they can never tell you what they really think… what their deep convictions are. When they do that they lose that special magic, they break that reciprocity with white Americans and become simply an individual.”

And your point is what?

*That if you were really an “individual” you would invariably turn up like Shelby Steele or Clarence Thomas and therefore the liberals wouldn’t like you?

*That the “real” views of a black Democrat must necessarily be odious to white people and make them feel the “guilt”? (if so, are you tacitly buying into the “challenger” worldview?)

*That liberals can’t possibly like real individuals because all their views are based on inauthentic stereotypes?

Tell us, Dr. Steele, if there is no general racial hostility in our society except, ostensibly, in the liberal construction of the world, then where are all these free, authentic, responsible, black leaders in your putatively non-hostile conservative America? Where is the viable conservative black candidate for president?

If Obama’s race poses a threat to his chances it will be because conservatives can’t get past his perceived strangeness. One comment to a review of Steele’s book on crystallized this perfectly: “By the way, if Hussein fails to be elected, it will be because he’s a Marxist, not because he’s black.”

Nice! I’m going to talk about rejecting his ideas rather than his ethnicity, but oh, yeah, I’ll call him by a name that draws attention to why his ethnicity should trouble us.

For reference:
Here are three of the many media appearances in which I heard Steele talk about his new book and Obama.

Bill Moyers interview

Brian Lehrer in an interview

Harry Smith guest appearance

Why Do YOU Love McCain?

McCain is the most dangerous of the Republican candidates. Precisely because there’s this perception of him as safe. As someone sane, and kind, and of good character. He’s the media’s golden boy (no, I’m not talking about his age).

I don’t get it. Does anyone remember his comments about Chelsea Clinton when she was just a kid? If you don’t, here’s a reminder.

Of course he apologized for this later…

He’s supposed to be one that liberals can live with…. um, why, exactly? He’s against reproductive choice. He stubbornly supports Bush’s Iraq war, although he does draw the line at torture, but this seems to me not so much a moral ceiling to which we aspire, but the moral floor below which we may not sink (to paraphrase the law professor who presented my property law bar review course). McCain also wants to “bomb Iran,” relishing the thought, it seems.

He supported South Carolina’s choice to fly the confederate flag on the state capitol as an expression of “heritage.”

Of course he apologized for this later…

When a campaign worker asked him how they would “beat the bitch” referring to Hillary Clinton, he laughed and said “that’s an excellent question.”

He didn’t apologize for that. Though he did add that he “respected” senator Clinton.

All this apologizing and double-posturing brings me to something else I don’t get about him: his reputation for “straight talk”; he may say things that are unpleasant and/or offensive (as in the examples above) but “straight”? I think he’s just as evasive and waffling as the next politician. I thought I was going to have to do some work and remember a bunch more things but someone has already done this (and made my job a hell of a lot easier).

McCain seems to be beyond the taint of anything. Bill Clinton is considered — even by many who thought he was a pretty good president — a slime ball because he cheated on his wife. McCain cheated on his first wife repeatedly, eventually leaving her for his much-younger current wife and being estranged from his children for some time. Yet, this is the man of “character.”

Why the media love affair with McCain? Because he was a POW and we don’t say bad things about our brave veterans? Far be it from me to decline to give a man his due for courage and resilience in war, but where was McCain when John Kerry was vilified — in connection with a service that earned Kerry a purple heart — by a guy who got Daddy to bail him out of the same war? Oh, yeah, he was standing next to and supporting the guy whose Daddy bailed him out.

So, again, why DOES McCain get a free pass — is it because he seems like the kind of guy you “want to have a beer with” like our current president? (McCain was quite a party boy in his youth, as turns out). People keep talking about “liking” him. Is that it? If so, then, judging by both men, callousness, lying, incompetence, and a spiteful sense of humor are the qualities we look for in a guy who we want to get drunk with and entrust our country to.

Welcome to the frat boy gold standard of the American presidency.

My Old Fears

Gloria Steinem wrote an interesting New York Times op-ed piece today. It rings true to me, sadly.

In an earlier post, I lamented that some are giving too much credence to old fears about race and sex in politics. But while I hold to my conclusion that our fears about the (real or imagined) prejudices of others shouldn’t intimidate us into choosing the most “electable” person, I do admit that an abiding sense of dejection takes me over now and again when the entrenched nature of some of those kinds of prejudices resurface.

I have to say, I have always thought that the sex barrier is in some ways much tougher to negotiate. I’m certainly suggesting that the legacy of sexism has been more harrowing than the legacy of slavery or Jim Crow, but it certainly has been more resistant. Possibly because it has been more diffuse, sexism is also much harder to shake than racism. Americans have historically not found gender inequality as morally problematic as race inequality.

In the 19th Century, the feminist movement put its agenda on hold to go all out in supporting the abolition movement. At the end of that road, we had a constitutional amendment that specifically prohibited race-based voting discrimination against “male” citizens. Women would have to wait another generation.

In more recent history, remember back in the fall when a McCain supporter asked him “how do we beat the bitch” and he — after laughing it off and before saying something generic about respecting Senator Clinton — actually said “that’s an excellent question”? Can you imagine if the supporter had said how do we beat the [racist expletive] referring to a black candidate? McCain would have expressed outrage and everyone in the media would be all over it.

In fact, remembering back to Don Imus — if a man in his position had called some athletes “scruffy little sluts” I doubt the national outcry would be as loud or last as long, particularly if their race had been the same as his. People seemed to care that these young women were targets of a racial slur and I’m glad they cared, but if the slur had been purely sexual, and coming from a man who shared their race, I think most people would shrug it off. And women who insisted on calling attention to it would be considered tiresome and polarizing.

Do You Care How We Get There?

I keep hearing that Obama is trying to have it both ways by playing the post-partisan unity theme while being pretty clearly progressive on policy. Well, I don’t know about Obama (I REALLY don’t) but I don’t like the question. I think it sets up a false dichotomy.

You can be pretty damn ideological and still promote “unity” – and not solely in that self-serving, cynical way that politicians routinely do. Surely, you can have passionate views while being genuinely committed to persuading rather than strong-arming others into supporting you? It is even possible that you don’t arrogate to your self the right to implement your plans even in the event that you don’t succeed in persuading others. You might even be open to persuasion yourself. No, really. You might.

Unlike a lot of people, I don’t mind political labels. I’m a feminist, for instance. (That’s right, I said it — you wanna piece of me? Go ahead, bring it on!) But labels are like any other word and it’s important to consider what they mean in each context. Labels like “progressive” and “conservative” too often conflate ideological impulses with policy platforms. That might work for wonks (at least the particular wonks whose agendas are served by the conflation), but most people don’t worry so much about process. People are attracted to ideologies because of the issues they purport to address and the outcomes they promise to deliver rather than the set of approaches that they advocate. This leads to ill considered faith in the approaches advocated by the candidate who is most passionate about the problem one cares about. This in turn creates the false impression that those approaches are part of what people care about.

But I think most people are actually pretty open to different ways of achieving their goals. As long as the goals themselves aren’t trivialized. For example, a lot of poor people – and those who care about them – might support less welfare and a freer market if someone made a persuasive case to them that this works to reduce their poverty (not just make their poverty look less dire by citing rises in “average” income courtesy of bigger Wall Street bonuses). I’m not taking a position on the degree to which free markets can cure poverty; that’s a separate – and far more complicated – discourse. I am saying that people whose main concern is poverty aren’t going to be “united” with the people whose main concern is commercial freedom by any argument that essentially prioritizes one of those concerns and gives lip service to the other as an after thought.

Change Is in the Crisp Iowa Air

Looks like it’s Obama and Huckabee. If the rest of the country nominates the same way, our voting choices will be between a “skinny kid with a funny name” and a guy who doesn’t believe in evolution. Give me the skinny kid with the big ears and the sane head!

Lesser of Two Weebles

Wonder what’ll happen in Iowa tonight? But then, why should this little series of salon gatherings in the corn state have so much sway?

Don’t get me wrong, I love that Iowans have their quirky nomination process. It reminds me that Americans – unlike people in most other countries – really are pretty diverse. We’re free to be diverse and to have local traditions that others think are looney. I’m not familiar with the Iowa constitution, but I suspect that the political parties are free to have primary elections instead, if they choose. Even if they are not, I’m willing to take a bet that the people of Iowa are free – if they so choose – to enact any law or constitutional amendment necessary to allow for that flexibility.

What bothers me, though, is the impact of the Iowa caucuses’ timing on the news cycle. The reason this matters is that we have bought into this idea that what happens in each milestone on the campaign trail – and what the “experts” have to say about it – should inform our ballot choices as much or more than the results we want to see. Otherwise, Howard Dean might have been president. It’s a meta-process; too self-referential; too much of a self-fulfilling prophecy. It makes us settle for “viable” candidates instead of letting candidates become viable by our real choices based on real policy considerations.

As Dennis Kucinich once said: “I’m electable… If you vote for me.”

In the end, despite what the form of the Iowa caucus says about our diversity, its disproportional influence on the election is a symptom of our disturbing tendency to ignore the richness of political diversity and regress toward a manufactured mean.

Political strategies are important, of course. If you know your guy is unpopular, you need to figure out whether he or she has a realistic chance of overcoming that before you “waste” your vote. The Kucinich quote probably applies better to John McCain (before the latest poll surge) or Joe Biden. If your guy’s shot is as long as Kucinich’s, you might well want to cut your losses and vote for whoever is your number two. Still, this seems to me to be appropriate for the last minute and only for those who don’t see any value in symbolic voting (such as long-term transformational goals or ideological purity) as more pressing than the next president’s agenda and whether they can live with it.

But why would a pacifist liberal vote for a Democrat who is “electable” because she or he is hawkish? Why would a “small government” Republican vote for George W. Bush? Yet they do. All the time.

Take Hillary Clinton: why is she the favorite? Partly because she is all things to all people. Whew! We can relax, she won’t say too much to upset that mythical “center” of American politics and as long as we perceive her to be inoffensive to this “center” we don’t have to be offended by her either. It’s a shame that I feel this way, because I used to like her (and I may actually still vote for her). I liked her because once upon a time she seemed more authentic (if sometimes a little brash) and less politically malleable than Bill. But now people consider her “electable” precisely because she reminds them of Bill, who is every Democrat’s favorite “centrist.” He signed the Defense of Marriage Act (allowing states to disregard legal same-sex marriages from other states, which is in direct violation of Article IV of the constitution); he bombed Bosnia and Iraq while looking the other way on Rawanda; endorsed the Personal Responsibility And Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, which made it harder for unmarried mothers – the people most in need of help – to get welfare; and he broke his promise to end discrimination against gay people in the military. Where was the liberal president I thought I elected? I have friends who think he had to “compromise” this way in order to be “viable.” In other words, we now accept, without a hint irony, that politicians must do what they must do to stay in office.

That’s all good for the politician, but what’s in it for me? Why should I care if an official stays in power if she will do nothing that I would like to see done (or I don’t know what the hell she’ll do, because she’s working so hard to get/stay in office)? Why should we care about the party label if the candidate doesn’t do it for us (whatever that “it” might be for any one of us)?

This is why I was baffled at the ire of my fellow Democrats in 2000 over Nader “stealing” Gore’s votes. Call me old fashioned, but I say votes don’t belong to a candidate until they are cast in his favor. I hated that Bush got in office (and he actually did sort of “steal” the votes by election “irregularities” and then had them sanitized by judicial fiat, so who knows if it would even have mattered if Gore’s lead had been larger). In any case, I wouldn’t have and didn’t vote for a third party candidate that year; it really was important to me. But I can’t get over the arrogance of concluding that others are obliged to agree with my politics and my political strategies. Criticize them for their views, sure, but don’t imagine that you were somehow “wronged.”

Anyway, back to the present. I don’t know what y’all think, but it seems to me that most candidates (even those who tout themselves as candidates of “change”) are so squarely playing to the perceived “center” that we all kind of give in to this bland game of judging candidates by an invisible checklist of the “right” things to say. The right way to be “American.” I love how candidates say with authority “the American people want” – like there’s some ideal monolithic “American” mean to which the rest of us are obliged to defer. And the candidates prance around in a pageant where each of them has to prove to this “American” that she or he is the least unusual. The most centrist. They have to be, as Stephen Colbert once said: “extra medium.”

So we must choose from the Weebles. They are firmly rooted in the political center of electability. And while they wobble to the left or right depending on the audience, they don’t fall down off the center.

Cops & Robbers

I just saw the critically acclaimed 2005 film “The Constant Gardener” today. In a nutshell (spoiler alert): an idealistic young woman and her sensibly well meaning diplomat husband learn the fatal lesson that their good intentions are no match for immense corporate greed and government corruption on an international scale. Some mega pharmaceutical companies essentially run human testing of shoddily designed drugs for tuberculosis on terminal AIDS patients in Africa. The patients’ “informed consent” is obtained by offering them the choice between AIDS treatment if they participate in the TB trials or no treatment if they don’t. Of course the AIDS treatment is supposed to be provided by completely unrelated foreign government sponsored humanitarian aid programs. But they are all in bed together. The trial results are slanted so that the patients who experience adverse effects — and die from them — are quietly removed from the records as ever having existed. The drug companies pay off the governments in their home countries. The governments look the other way when the falsified research data (not to mention the morally questionable research methods) are presented for the purpose of regulatory approval.

I don’t really know whether this story is based on real facts, but we all know that governments are very frequently instruments of material gain for those who can afford to buy their cooperation. On this topic, I would highly recommend Tim Carney’s well researched book “The Big Ripoff: How Big Business and Big Government Steal Your Money” although I have a few significant disagreements with its conclusions (look for my review of it some time soon). But for today, my question is what would happen if there were no government oversight of corporations? Carney and others focus their suspicions on government. To an extent that’s sensible. For example, if there were no regulatory approval to seek, would those pharmaceutical companies in the movie even feel the need to put on this elaborate ruse in the first place? Some say that oversight mechanisms are so pervasively vulnerable to abuse that they become not much more than excuses for bribery and patronage. Again, in our movie example: without government complicity the companies may not have had the enormous resources and power to operate such a large scale scam.

But I’m not sure the answer is as simple as just getting rid of the governments. Doesn’t that sound a bit like scrapping the whole idea of policing as a “solution” for a city where criminals have become powerful enough to buy off the cops?

For tonight, I’m just raising the question. More later.