Laughing Our Way Out of Confusion about Health Care

23 08 2009

Donny Shaw at OpenCongress makes an excellent point about how the Daily Show with Jon Stewart often features segments with more probing discussion about issues than actual programs that purport to be news outlets.

Armed with the first 500 pages of the House health care bill (H.R. 3200) Betsy McCaughey, the first person to equate end-of-life planning with government-mandated euthanasia, went on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart last night to defend her position.

The show sort of underscores the anomaly of the health care debate in our country right now. This is comedy show where two people are having a fairly high-level discussion about actual legislative text, and the substance is compelling enough that it makes for good entertainment. There is a real desire to know what’s in the bill. Health care, obviously, is an especially important issue. But, also, I think the people that follow what happens in Congress are figuring out that there is a lot of misinformation standing in the way of having a smart debate of the bill, and they are trying to get the facts for themselves, which is fantastic.

I suppose its fantastic that the Daily Show decided to do such a segment, but its also an alarming indicator of how the disinformation out there is so pervasive that even after two months of ‘debate’ we are still remain confused about the substance of the proposal. And the fact that a comedian, even one as clever as Stewart, could provide a better 101 on the issue than many other programs should be considered an indictment of the failure of the television news media to inform and educate the public about a critical issue that could change the country for generations to come.

You can watch the segment here.


Fringe Form of Bipartisianship

23 08 2009

Frank Rich’s column in today’s NYT echoes much of the liberal left’s criticism of Obama curious approach to bipartisanship, including reaching out to Republicans that have cozied up to the fringe right. Case in point Chuck Grassely of Iowa who is the designated point man on negotiating the health care bill for Senate Republicans, but has shamelessly propagated the death panel rumor.

Money quote:

Even now the radicals are taking a nonviolent toll on the Obama presidency. Obama complains, not without reason, that the news media, led by cable television, exaggerate the ruckus at health care events. But why does he exaggerate the legitimacy and clout of opposition members of Congress who, whether through silence or outright endorsement, are surrendering to the nuts? Even Charles Grassley, the supposedly adult Iowa Republican who is the Senate point man for his party on health care, has now capitulated to the armed fringe by publicly parroting their “pull the plug on grandma” fear-mongering.

Part of me wonders how much of this dynamic is a natural by product of a dwindling Republican party rapidly becoming a regional party with supporters who so successfully shifted the debate to the right that GOP elected officials feel as if they have no choice to not just keep up, but get out in front of the lunacy. After all, if you have a supposedly national party with no viable strategy to reach out to moderates and centrist voters and candidates, then those currently in office will constantly try to build up their street cred among the base.

Meanwhile, the political environment will continue suffer from an increase in political polarization.

Of course, Frank Rich is not alone in his frustration with the President’s approach, but there are a number of things that one has to remember about Capitol Hill. One is while Republicans during the Bush years were more than eager to move legislation with little regard to how many Democrats supported it, a handful of Democrats in the Senate today will not vote for a bill unless its a bipartisian measure.  Usually, these are redstate Democrats that are hyper sensitive about being painted as raving lefties such as Senators Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Kent Conrad of Montana, Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, and Mary Landrieu of Louisana.

Many of these Democrats joined forces with the likes of Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins both from Maine, too pair down the one time $900 billion stimulus bill down to $787 billlion. In a chamber composed of 100 members you will only see these two women Republicans from Maine, who are already feeling intense pressure not to show any signs of capitulation, and maybe one more GOP Senator that will bargain with the Democrats on health care or confirming judges to the federal bench, or spending bills or a climate change and energy bill.

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.

Paul Krugman’s Feigned Sense of Shock and Surprise

21 08 2009

In his most recent column, Paul Krugman argues that the White House should not be “shocked and surprise” that the liberal base would be angered and feel betrayed by any signals that it would be less than fully committed to a public plan option in health care reform legislation. Like many on the left, the Princeton professor believes that the administration’s yearning to work with an intransigent group of Republicans will only spell defeat for any expansive health care bill.

But Krugman’s disappointment with President Obama goes beyond just health care reform. Behind the thinly veiled snark and condescension you can tell he was ready to write this column for some time.

Though he apparently saw no need to neither quote nor cite any one in particular when he claimed, “A backlash in the progressive base — which pushed President Obama over the top in the Democratic primary and played a major role in his general election victory — has been building for months,” Krugman felt confident that he was speaking on behalf of millions.

Of course, there are several people Krugman could point to that have been skeptical of Obama’s approach on issues ranging from health care to executive power to stemming the foreclosure crisis. Single-payer supporting liberals, thee ACLU, and a variety of consumer groups can easily provide the kind of ammunition for sharp criticism Krugman is alluding to, but honestly its not necessary about any of those specific policies for Krugman. He has a problem with President Obama’s approach to governing period.

“The fight over the public option involves real policy substance, but it’s also a proxy for broader questions about the president’s priorities and overall approach,” said Krugman in his column today. “It’s hard to avoid the sense that Mr. Obama has wasted months trying to appease people who can’t be appeased, and who take every concession as a sign that he can be rolled.”

As everyone observed during the campaign, Obama is much more communitarian politician who wants to persuade and cajole. He is not confrontational and populist figure. That does not sit well with Krugman who always wanted an candidate in the mold of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, that is someone who does not shy away from his own instincts for governmental intervention and eagerness to bend Congress to his will.

To be sure, Krugman does raise an interesting question about how one should deal with an implacable opposition whose sole purpose is to obstruct any plan the president endorses. It also does seem odd that the president would single out Senator Chuck Grassely of Iowa when he is one of the main culprits out there propagating this myth that a House bill floating in Congress contains a provision that will pull the plug on grandma. At the same time, however, Krugman conveniently sides steps the other question about how one should deal with conservative Democrats and implacable Republicans in a fiercely divided Congress.

Consider the following: The stimulus passed with little support from Republicans in the Senate and a not insignificant amount of Democrats voting against it in the House. The House cleared a climate change bill by a measly 7 votes even though Democrats have a 78 member majority in that chamber. Congress also neither appropriated funding for shutting down Gitmo and adamantly rejected any proposal that invovled housing detainees at any of the supermax prisons on the mainland.

Even passing legislation that would have granted bankruptcy judges the mere discretion – not mandate, but the option  – of reducing the principal and interest on certain mortgage loans that need to be restructured  proved to be a challenging feat. The measure – which could have prevented nearly one million Americans from losing their homes – got a pitiful 45 votes which is far short of the 60 need to overcome a procedural motion known as cloture and send it to the floor for a final vote.

In other words, Congress a body has been terriby unhelpful to the president at the very moment when we need them the most. But somehow its all Obama’s fault. I am not saying the administration is or should be  immune from criticism nor am I suggesting the push for health care could not have been handeled differently. After all, the president did urge all of us to hold him accountable. But that does not mean we should not lose sight of the wider political context and environoment that has contributed to frustrating the president’s agenda.

Muddying the Health Care Message

14 08 2009

From Marc Ambinder at the Altantic:

As usual, in a pattern that the left patented during the Bush administration, the organized right lost control of its message. Lawmakers, Republicans and Democrats, were being asked to respond to non-sequiturs (would you support a health care reform plan that grows the deficit?  Health care grows the deficit right now, so it’s a nonsense question, one that is easy for politicians to answer); they found their meetings full of engorged spleens.  Unrestrained, these town hall meetings are going to turn off the type of voters Republicans most need to pressure Blue Dog Democrats — independents who don’t have red genes or blue genes.  Both Fox and MSNBC televised Sen. Arlen Specter’s raucous town hall meeting live. It was full of confrontation and protest. There were boos when Specter reaffirmed his president’s Americanness.

I have not made up my mind about whether Ambinder is truly onto something here. Sure, I agree that Republicans have lost control of their message given how few people are really discussing patient choice and controlling deficits anymore and are now on shouting about death panels and taxpayer funded abortion. Sure, I agree that the activist right has courted extremist who have turned this fight into a partisian drama with deafening decibel levels. But I am not so sure that even if the Republicans damage themselves and their brand in the process in these astroturfed inspired protests that they won’t be able to sucessfuly defeat health care reform.

These tea bagers turned birthers turned health care opponents turned Obama haters are shifting much of the skepticism of the president’s plan so far to the right, it will take probably until the end of September to get the country to focus on the problem in more sober terms. That’s assuming the White House and health care reform advocates can regain the bully pulpit within a week or so.

For months, the White House has been telling the public that “the key to our nation’s fiscal future – and there are substantial efficiency improvements that are possible to deliver better results at lower costs in the health system.” We are now in the middle of the August recess and four bills have survived committee votes with a critical bill yet to emerge from the Senate Finance Committee. Conservatives, however, have managed to distort Obama’s message on fiscal responsibility with great zeal. Its gotten to the point where we are far more likely to hear people ‘debate’ whether or not the president is a socialist than see people argue about the merits of the what he and the Congress are proposing.

While the Obama White House went wonky, conservatives went visceral and populist.  To their credit, the administration in recent days has tried to reframe this health care battle as you the patient and the American citizen, as opposed to a mere consumer, against the health care insurance industry. At Portsmouth, New Hampshire earlier this week, President Obama reminded his supporters about what’s really at stake:

Now, health insurance reform is one of those pillars that we need to build up that new foundation. I don’t have to explain to you that nearly 46 million Americans don’t have health insurance coverage today. In the wealthiest nation on Earth, 46 million of our fellow citizens have no coverage. They are just vulnerable. If something happens, they go bankrupt, or they don’t get the care they need.

But it’s just as important that we accomplish health insurance reform for the Americans who do have health insurance — (applause) — because right now we have a health care system that too often works better for the insurance industry than it does for the American people. And we’ve got to change that. (Applause.)

Oh yeah change. I have not hear that word in a while. We need to hear more of that. But more importantly we need to hear who the change is for and why. It does not matter that we heard it during the campaign. People need to hear it again.

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”:

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.