Dealing with Inconvenient Myths about Health Care

22 08 2009

In his weekly address, President Barack Obama said while he is glad to see “a vigorous debate about health insurance reform” he is expressed frustration about it being “dominated by willful misrepresentations and outright distortions, spread by the very folks who would benefit the most by keeping things exactly as they are.”

He cited “some of the more outrageous myths circulating on the internet, on cable TV, and repeated at some town halls across this country” such as generous health coverage for undocumented workers, mandated payment for abortions, and the implementation of so-called death panels. None of which are actually in the bill.

This is not the first time the president felt the need to counter some of these myths. In his August 8th weekly address, Obama said criticized the spreading of “outlandish rumors that reform will promote euthanasia, cut Medicaid, or bring about a government takeover of health care. That’s simply not true.”

At an August 11th New Hampshire town hall gathering on health care the president also said, “The rumor that’s been circulating a lot lately is this idea that somehow the House of Representatives voted for “death panels” that will basically pull the plug on grandma because we’ve decided that we don’t — it’s too expensive to let her live anymore.”

If the president of the United States has to push back on these falsehoods so many times to get his message out one wonders if he might benefit from a different approach. I realize President Obama sees himself as a reconciler of sorts and a healer, a latter day Abraham Lincoln if you will.

“There are always those who oppose it, and those who use fear to block change,” he noted in his weekly address. “But what has always distinguished America is that when all the arguments have been heard, and all the concerns have been voiced, and the time comes to do what must be done, we rise above our differences, grasp each others’ hands, and march forward as one nation and one people, some of us Democrats, some of us Republicans, all of us Americans.”

But since the opposition is not looking for harmony, isn’t interested in civility, and won’t be satisfied with merely being listened to, perhaps he needs to deal with folks in the same way Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank confronted a LaRouche supporter named Rachel Brown at one of his own town halls this week. Brown specifically said was like Adolf Hilter’s T4 policy in Nazi Germany where people who were deemed incurably ill because of a chronic aliment or a disability or mentally disturbed or otherwise considered undesirable to national socialists was somehow the same thing as a provision in one of the health care bills, H.R. 3200, regarding end of life care, i.e. the infamous dealth panels.

This myth has been thoroughly debunked by the press and other experts.  Read the WaPo’s editorial on this issue for more detail on this distortion.

Rep. Frank’s said to Brown, who managed to compare Obama to Hitler at a recent town hall meeting, “It is a tribute to the First Amendment that this kind of vile, contemptible nonsense is so freely propagated.” He also added “Trying to have a conversation with you would be like trying to argue with a dining room table, I have no interest in doing it.”

And at one point, Rep. Frank even rhetorically asked the LaRouche supporter “what planet do you live on?” As you may or may not know, the LaRouche group is a bunch of fringe lefties with socialist leanings with a peculiar penchant for conspiratorial thinking.

Watch the video:

Now I understand President Obama is under a different kind of pressure than Representative Frank has to contend with. Obama is a first year president trying not to fail and constantly mindful of his 2012 reelection bid. Frank, on the other hand, has a very secure Congressional seat, which he has held since 1981.

Whereas the president is still wrestling with how to be a principled uniter as he desperately tries to avoid alienating potential voters lest he himself be accused of being grossly intolerant and elitist, Frank often speaks his mind with little concern about who feigns offense. I understand that.

But at some point, the president has to be a lot more forceful in his condemnation of these baseless attacks otherwise they will continue to gain traction as the negotiations over the various bill become more involved. And the more that happens the easeir it will be for Republicans and conservative Democrats in the House and the Senate to push back against the president.

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On Excerpts of The Battle for America 2008

1 08 2009

I have never been much of consumer of campaign books. I tend to think they more or less rehash everything that has already been dissected in contemporaneous reporting even if they do offer juicy tidbits about campaign infighting, portraits of a frustrated candidate, and a loads of humorous anecdotes. Couldn’t I get much of that on YouTube spoofs anytime I want? Aside from a peculiar variety of political junkies, I often wonder to myself who actually purchases such books.

But after reading the an excerpt of “The Battle for America 2008: The Story of an Extraordinary Election” by Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson in the Washington Post today, I think I’m beginning to understand the appeal of that genre of books. Of course, the 2008 presidential contest from primary to the end of the general election is an unusual serious of events featuring an unlikely stew of characters giving life to grand themes. Somehow the white guy from the South, former Senator John Edwards, became the underdog and a white woman from a northern blue state and black guy with a Muslim name became the main competitors on the Democratic side. And even in that struggle contained hues of David versus Goliath storyline that the media found easy to sell to a eager public.

Meanwhile, the Republican corp had a number of cartoon characters from the adamantly anti-immigrant then-Congressman Tom Tancredo to the jolly aw shucks evangelism of former Arkansas Mike Huckabee. A more disciplined Senator John McCain had to emerge from the ashes before taking the lead. And that only happened after his big win in New Hampshire.

The media’s appetite for sideshow personalities like Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Joe the Plumber, and Bill Ayers made the long campaign easy fodder for water cooler talk for those who wanted a little gossip go with wonky debates on the minutiae of preconditions, the importance of a employer mandates in a health care plan, and the intricacies of the delegate and Superdelegate count.

Historians will have fun with that moment in American politics for generations to decades to come – maybe even longer than that.

But everything revolved around the eventual victor Barack Obama. Compared to his competitors, his campaign was heralded a marvel of near pitch perfect management with few dips in morale matching the posture of its intrepid leader. And the public, particularly his supporters, were very impressed with his cool demeanor, keen intellect and soaring rhetoric.

Balz and Johnson, however, seized on the moments in which those notions did not hold up.

Aides worried that Obama’s low morale might infect others in the campaign and spoke to him about it. They tried to buck him up, but at points in the spring and early summer of 2007, he was deeply frustrated — with his own performance and with that of much of his campaign. On July 15, he met with his senior staff at the home of Valerie Jarrett, a close friend and confidante to both Obama and his wife, Michelle. One adviser recalled it as the moment Obama began to take a more direct role in the operations of his campaign. He was blunt in his critique, and the exchanges among some of his advisers became testy. Beyond fundraising and the operation overseeing the Internet and new media, the campaign was not performing well, Obama said. The message still wasn’t where it should be. The political operation wasn’t up to speed. The campaign lacked crispness and good execution. He believed it was becoming too insular and wanted new people added to the inner circle. He told his team members they were all doing B work. If they continued on that course, they would come in a respectable second.

“Second is not good enough,” he said.

Perhaps the most intriguing part of the excerpt so far, however, was then-chief campaign strategist and now White House senior adviser David Axelrod’s candid and prescient assessment of the big O’s potential weaknesses in a 2006 memo.

“It goes to your willingness and ability to put up with something you have never experienced on a sustained basis: criticism. At the risk of triggering the very reaction that concerns me, I don’t know if you are Muhammad Ali or Floyd Patterson when it comes to taking a punch. You care far too much what is written and said about you. You don’t relish combat when it becomes personal and nasty. When the largely irrelevant Alan Keyes attacked you, you flinched,” he said of Obama’s 2004 Senate opponent.

Many in the blogosphere and beyond often wondered if Obama was in fact the happy warrior beneath all that cool even if he could seduced legions of voters with great speechifying. The sheer force of the machinery of the campaign helped quell, thought not silence, many of those lingering doubts. And Obama knew it telling Balz and Haynes:

As he reviewed the campaign from his transition headquarters in mid-December, Obama offered a frank assessment of his two main competitors: Clinton and John McCain. “I was sure that my toughest race was Hillary,” he said. “Hillary was just a terrific candidate, and she really found her voice in the last part of the campaign. After Texas and Ohio she just became less cautious and was out there and was working hard and I think connecting with voters really well. She was just a terrific candidate. And [the Clinton campaign] operation was not as good as ours and not as tight as ours, but they were still plenty tough. Their rapid response, how they messaged in the media was really good. So we just always thought they were our most formidable challenge. That isn’t to say that we underestimated John McCain; it’s just that we didn’t think that their campaign operation was as good.

I cannot help but note the irony here that the campaign that was often dubbed as personality driven and almost free of doubt was in fact the very same tightly organized campaign that achieved success in no small part due to a healthy fear of losing. Its not news, but still a tidbit worth chewing. And maybe with enough of these kinds of insights it might even form a book worth reading.





New Harry and Louise Ads Up

19 07 2009

New “Harry and Louise” ads are airing this weekend urging Congress to pass universal heath care, but with a more encouraging, softer and more gentler tone than the versions that ran in 1993. Those series of ads, among other factors, are widely credited with killing the push for comprehensive health care during the Clinton administration in the 1990’s. But some people do not see it that way. “What really turned it into ‘Harry and Louise’ vs. the Bill and Hillary campaign was the response of the Clinton White House. Hillary in particular responded very personally,” Ben Goddard, the writer and director of the old and new ads told ABC News.

I am not so sure that even in retrospect that argument is the least bit plausible, but it does sound as if creators of the original spots are have changed adopted a different message. Here is what ABC News said about it:

“While the popular perception has been for some time that it was an anti-health care reform campaign, it would be more accurate to say it questioned the wisdom of the proposal that the Hillary’s health committee cooked up essentially behind closed doors without input from the industry.” Goddard said that this time around, the President wants to include private insurance policies as part of the solution.

Both “Harry and Louise” actors and their director Goddard — who married the actress playing Louise in both the 1993 and 2009 ads — were on the Hill today along with representatives of insurance companies and key leaders in the health care industry, speaking in support of the Affordable Health Choices Act. That act, passed by the Senate’s HELP committee yesterday, includes a public option.

The ad buy reportedly cost $4 millions a is paid for by Families USA, a health care advocacy group supporting universal coverage, and Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, a trade association of pharmaceutical and biotech companies, and two large insurance companies.

Original Harry and Louise ads in 1993:

New Harry and Louise ad  “Get the Job Done”:





The Irony of Sen. Jeff Sessions

15 07 2009

Supreme Court confirmation hearings have been advertised as a study in contrasts between what our nation’s two parties envision the role of the courts in our society and highlight competing ideas on grand Constitutional questions. Of course, in more recent decades they have fertile ground to perpetuate our ongoing culture wars in some form or another. Unlike years past, Judge Sonia Sotomayor nomination has not inspired fury of either side in the abortion debate, which I don’t lament at all, with greater questions of racial and gender gaining more attention.

But today’s hearing had its fair share of pettiness and narrow minded questioning.

Recognizing the dishonest acrimonious shout fest that has ensued in the last few weeks, Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy cautioned his Republican collegues against yeilding to “outside pressure groups that sought to create a caricature of Judge Sotomayor while belittling her record and achievements, her intelligence.” In his opening statement yesterday, Sen. Leahy suggested that history will not look kindly upon Senators who will try to embarass Judge Sotomayor as that chamber once did during Justice Thurgood Marshall’s confirmation hearings, the first African American on the high court, by asking “questions designed to embarrass him, questions such as are you prejudice against the white people in the South.”

Sen. Leahy cited another low point of when Justice Louis Brandies had to beat back anti-Semitic charges of him being a radical jurist. “I hope that’s a time of our past” said the Senator from Vermont.

Apparently not. Republican Senator Jeff Sessions in particular led the charge in criticizing Judge Sonia Sotomayor by questioning her impartiality even in the face of all the statiscal evidence of her rulings underscoring that she is not some left wing judge that implusively sides with victims in discrimination cases or with plantiffs suing the employers or promoting some other lefty cause. Predictably, during is questioning period he spent an inordinate amount of time on the wise Latina remark as a reliable indication that she will somehow be biased against those who are not people of color or women, i.e., white men.

Sen. Sessions understood Judge Sotomayor’s admission that like any judge her life experiences shape her judicial thinking and that impariality is an aspirational goal rarely if ever achieved, as reason to suspect that she has a hidden agenda. “So how can you reconcile your speeches which repeatedly assert that impartiality is a near aspiration which may not be possible in all or even most cases with your oath that you’ve taken twice which requires impartiality?” asked Sen. Sessions. One has to wonder who are these genuinely imparitial people that Sessions seems to believe exist.

For her part Judge Sotomayor said, “That’s why we have appellate judges that are more than one judge because each of us, from our life experiences, will more easily see different perspectives argued by parties.” As a lay person, this strikes me as a fairly obvious observation.

At one point, the Senator from Alabama inexplicably thought it was necessary to state that a fellow Puerto Rican Judge Jose Cabranes disagreed with Judge Sotomayor’s finding in the Ricci decision. The Ricci case involved a group of white firefighters and one Hispanic who sued for racial discrimination when the city of New Haven, CT when it decided to throw out a promotional examine after not enough African Americans scored high enough to be considered for a promotion. Judge Sotomayor sided with New Haven in finding that the test had a disparate impact on African Americans under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Her decision was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court a few weeks ago by a vote of 5-4.

“Had you voted with Judge Cabranes, himself of Puerto Rican ancestry, had you voted with him, you could’ve changed that case,” Sessions said. With that remark, Senator Sessions ironically he appeared to be promoting the same kind of group loyalty that he thought that Judge Sotomayor could not avoid.

Interestingly enough, Sen. Sessions used Judge Sotomayor’s association with the Puerto Rican Legal Defense Fund to try to portray her as an activist judge even though Judge Cabranes, a Republican appointee, is a founder of the famed civil rights group.

In sum, we learned more about the prejudices of a particular Republican Senator than we did of the nominee.





U.S. Runs for Human Rts Council Seat But Durban II Still a No Go

9 04 2009

Last week, the  Obama administration announced it would run for a seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council in the next round of elections, a body that President Bush avoided and ignored.

In a press statement, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice referred to a need “for the Council to be balanced and credible” an explained that the U.S. is running for a the open seat because “we believe that working from within, we can make the council a more effective forum to promote and protect human rights. We hope to work in partnership with many countries to achieve a more effective Council.”

Throughout the Bush years, U.N.-U.S. relations were always frosty to put it mildly.  Bush hardly felt comfortable around liberal internationalists of the American variety much less those from other countries steeped in global affairs. But his hostility toward the U.N. only hardened in the run up to the Iraq war where he failed to amass support for the March 2003 invasion. As early as the August 2003, President Bush alienated potential U.N. involvement in the creation of an Iraqi central government.

Of course, Dubya and company soon changed their minds once the Iraqi insurgency got going and the U.S. military found itself lacking the knowledge and skills for diffusing a post-conflict situation already cultivated by the U.N. peacekeeping and diplomatic corp.

But such a change of heart even if it was for out of desperation never extended to the Council, given how it was populated by some of the worse human rights abusers such as Sudan, Libya, and Cuba, who were eager to pass resolutions condemning Israel while also blocking scrutiny of treatment of their own citizens. To be fair, this is a problem that has vexed some of the most clear-eyed supporters of the U.N.

The legacy of that sort of politicization of the Council’s mission remains a huge problem even after the round of reforms in 2006, which dissolved the Human Rights Commission that was established in 1946.  The 06 reforms also nearly assured representation from some of the most repressive governments by allotting seats seats to countries based on regional blocs as opposed to a record of improvement.

That’s enough for critics of the Council, particularly Rice’s neoconservative predecessor John Bolton, believe the rights body is too fatally flawed and ineffective to warrant participation from the U.S. Never one to mince words former Ambassador Bolton reportedly told the New York Times, “You don’t show up at every ragtag little organization that comes into existence”.

Sigh.

Though its easy to dismiss Bolton’s criticism as shortsighted and irascible, it does evince a certain view of American power that still persists today in some quarters. The prestige of American power should not be diminished by engaging flawed institutions that provide cover to our adversaries. The world is against the U.S. and we must assert our influence whenever possible to ensure its power is preserved at worst and extended at best.

But hasn’t Bolton been paying attention? Our standing in the world has diminished as a result of human rights abuses during the Bush era. Torturing prisoners at Abu Ghraib and at Gitmo has done more to aid America’s detractors looking to deflect attention from their own human rights record as their criticize the U.S. and do so effectively.  One of the ways to counter these charges is to join the Human Rights Council and make sure that a proper comparison is made between the U.S and other countries on the Council, including the Sudans, Cubas, and Libyas of the world.

That said, the Obama administration is not going to participate in any U.N. forum even if it is human rights related. Consider U.N.’s upcoming conference on racism otherwise known as Durban II. The administration still won’t participate in it even though the latest agenda, or the outcome document, has been purged of nearly all of the things that it said it could not accept namely, references to reparations, strong criticisms of Israel, and severe limitations on freedom of expression.

Perhaps some may think that the U.S. sought to run for the Council seat as a way to placate critics for not participating in Durban II, but that’s a cynical misreading of the situation. As early as late January the administration was pondering joining the Human Rights Council.

The administration really fears that the whole affair will deteriorate into an anti-Israeli and anti-Western hate fest led by certain countries within the Organization of Islamic Conference. Its not an altogether irrational fear, but a very compelling one nonetheless.

Joining the Human Rights Council is a step in the right direction in overcoming that fear.





In Hot Pursuit of Health Care Reform

26 02 2009

Declarative language from the right person at the right time can make all the difference in the policy world. In a recent speech before a joint session of Congress, President Barack Obama reaffirm his campaign pledge of swiftly enacting some kind of health care reform this year where he noted that “the cost of our health care has weighed down our economy and the conscience of our nation long enough.  So let there be no doubt: health care reform cannot wait, it must not wait, and it will not wait another year.”

That same night Obama claimed that his budget “includes an historic commitment to comprehensive health care reform – a down-payment on the principle that we must have quality, affordable health care for every American.”

A day later Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada told reporters that ” by the end of this year, I want to do something significant dealing with health care.” Of course, that might be difficult to do without a nominee for Secretary for the Department of Health and Human Services and an ailing Senator Kennedy who chairs the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. No one has been named to run the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services either.

But even if its just an aspirational goal its still  encouraging to hear Reid set such an ambitious time line for health care reform considering how a month ago House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn said, “I would much rather see it done that way, incrementally, than to go out and just bite something you can’t chew,” Clyburn said. “We’ve been down that road. I still remember 1994.” The South Carolina Congressman was referring to President Clinton’s failed attempt to provide universal health care, which in part led to a Republican take over of Congress and the years of the Gingrich Revolution.

In light of new government numbers, however, bold action to bring health care costs down while covering more people could not be more timely. According to the Congressional Budget Office, “the average number of nonelderly people who are uninsured will rise
from at least 45 million in 2009 to about 54 million in 2019.” Another report from HHS, found that health care costs will go beyond $8,000 per person and with the recession gnawing away the nation’s tax base the Medicare trust fund could become insolvent as early as 2016 – three years sooner that originally predicted.

Additionally, every 30 seconds someone files for bankruptcy after incurring expensive medical costs. A 2005 report found another 1.5 million families lost their homes to foreclosure because of health care costs. Plus, its no longer politically inconvenient to push for health care reform since about 7o of the public now support greater government involvement in expanding coverage and bring cost down, according to a new CNN poll.

Incremental reform to the nation’s health care system could be too costly to the economy, but more importantly too risky for the people that depend on it.





Chatter about Bank Nationalization

22 02 2009

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger joined a growing minority of Republicans in support of the prospect of more aggressive federal intervention of the nation’s the banking system, an idea that has inspired stern opposition from members of his own party and deep anxiety among Wall Street investors and many taxpayers.

The Austrian born Hollywood actor turned politician, who immigrated to the U.S. in part due to his “hatred of socialism, of the whole socialist system”, denied any  change in his views concerning the merits of a centrally planned economy and simply asserted that there was real difference between the kind of intervention currently debated in U.S. and what actually exists in Europe.

“Well, I — first of all, I think that we have a really good system here in America. You don’t have to talk about nationalization. All it basically says is that if a bank doesn’t have the money to — to give their customers, so if it, you know, defaults in some way,” said Gov. Schwarzenegger in an interview on “This Week with George Stephanopoulos.”

” So the federal government always had that right to take over. So it’s not nationalizing anything. I don’t see it as such. There’s a difference of the way it is in Europe, where the — where the federal government owns some of those banks, whereas here only if there is a problem financially that the federal government comes in and takes over and helps out, ” added the California governor.

The notion of temporary intervention has also found support among GOP free market champions like former Chairman of Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan. “It may be necessary to temporarily nationalize some banks in order to facilitate a swift and orderly restructuring,” Greenspan told the Financial Times.

Citing the the proliferation of toxic assests rooted in the mortgage sector, South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham echoed the former chairman’s recommendation last Sunday. “To me, banking and housing are the root cause of this problem. I’m very much afraid any program to salvage the banks is going to require the government,” said on This Week.  “I would not take off the idea of nationalizing the banks.”

Even though there seems to be some sort of daylight between Gov. Schwarzenegger and some of his Republican brethren over the use of the word “nationalization” in substance they seem to be in agreement about the nature of the intervention, which would entail the federal government temporarily owning a majority of the the stake in at least a select number of banks to provide them enough capital to lend, invest and prevent more economic contraction. Other options include securing or outright buying a considerable amount of toxic assets tied to a dismally underperforming mortgage sector and coursing through the major arteries of our ailing credit system and leading to even greater bank undercapitalization.

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