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.


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.

The Teachable Moment that Wasn’t

31 07 2009

With so much that has been shouted and so little that’s been said during this “teachable moment,” I am glad that the photo-op and the platitudes that accompanied the Gates-Crowley affair has  been now put to rest over a few brewskis. We have not learned anything new about racial profiling, or had an honest conversation about racial prejudice, or matured as a nation in any way since the story broke.

Instead, we were fascinated by the fact that these two strangers of different hues are in fact very distantly related, that St. Crowley tried to resuscitate to the late Boston Celtics star Reggie Lewis, that we should not call the get together a Beer Summit, that Vice President Joe Biden does not drink at all, and that the conservatives think that our part white and part black president somehow hates white people.

But most of all we learned that the best way to not talk about race is to trivialize the issue by reducing it to the isolated prejudices of others not as a living and mutating phenomenon that may influence our split second impressions of one another.

We did not learn, however, that even if we are racist ourselves its still possible that racial prejudice may still be a factor in how we treat one another. We also did not learn about what leads to racial profiling. We did not learn why many people of color and whites sees these kind of controversies so differently.

To be sure, this incident could not have come at a worse time for the president and I certainly recognize that. He really does not have time or the interest in playing racial healer, especially when he is trying to convince the American public and even members of his own party, even with commanding  majorities in both chambers, of the merits of his health care plan.

By the same token, I cannot help but lament the fact that this was the “teachable moment” that wasn’t.

Can’t Begrudge Him

26 07 2009

Ta-Nehisi Coates on the President’s more tempered remarks on Friday afteroon:

I really can’t begrudge him–his priority is health-care. Me, on the other hand, I’m pretty exhausted. What follows is the raw. Not much logic. Just some thoughts on how it feels.

I feel pretty stupid for going hard on this, and stupider for defending what Obama won’t really defend himself. I should have left it at one post. Evidently Obama, Crowley and Gates are talking about getting a beer together. I hope they have a grand old time.

The rest of us are left with a country where, by all appearances, officers are well within their rights to arrest you for sassing them. Which is where we started. I can’t explain why, but this is the sort of thing that makes you reflect on your own precarious citizenship. I mean, the end of all of this scares the hell out of me.

I agree.

Obama Tries to Quell Criticism of Gates Arrest

25 07 2009

President Barack Obama attempted to quell criticism of his remarks concerning the arrest of Harvard law professor Henry “Skip” Louis Gates by Sgt. James Crowley of the Cambridge, Massachusetts police force during a cameo appearance at a White House press briefing on Friday. The president expressed regret that “my choice of words didn’t illuminate, but rather contributed to more media frenzy.” He also said he phoned Sgt. Crowley to apologize for conveying the false impression that he intended to malign him and his department.

At his press conference on Wednesday he said “that the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they [sic] were in their own home.”

Seeing how his words of condemnation inadvertently led to much of the inane fodder in the blogosphere, talk radio, and cable television chatter and consequently distracting the public from his broader legislative agenda, he urged us to step “back for a moment,”  recognize that “these are two decent people, not extrapolate too much from the facts,”  but “be mindful of the fact that because of our history, because of the difficulties of the past, you know, African-Americans are sensitive to these issues.”

He also said he invited Professor Gates and Sgt. Crowley to the White House for a beer as a gesture of good will and hopes of reconciling differences and putting this controversy to rest.

His comments were meant to be conciliatory and to prevent the controversy over his initial set of remarks from competing with his message of the urgency of passing a health care reform bill through a slow moving Congress. On August 7th, the Congress breaks for a month long recess, and the White House is determined to keep the pressure on lawmakers to continue to work on the bill even during the break if need be. I could see how some of his advisers may think wading into racial politics at this juncture would not be helpful.

By the same token, the president attempt to rein back his statements were not helpful in enriching our already impoverished discussion of racial justice. Whether he knew it or not, the president’s remarks on Friday gave us the impression that the gray haired professor who walks with a cane is just a fault for his own arrest in his own home even if he produced an ID showing as the imposing and armed police officer is for cuffing him, since its all one big misunderstanding.

To imply there is some kind of moral equivalency here given the power relationship is wrong. Even if Professor Gates was belligerent is not clear that he was wanted to fight, threaten, initiate violent behavior, or was a danger to public safety or became annoyance, any one of which would have justified the arrest for disorderly conduct under Massachusetts law. In this instance, a mere heated exchange eventuated in a mug shot.

The president could have at least reaffirmed his statement on Wednesday that racial profiling remains a national problem and that something should be done about it.  For starters, we could pass the End Racial Profiling Act, which would ban the practice of racial profiling by federal law enforcement agencies and provide federal funding to state and local police departments if they adopt policies to prohibit the practice. ERPA has yet to be introduced this Congress, but criminal justice reform advocates have been clamoring for its passage for years.

Instead, we are told that tempers flared unnecessarily on both sides and that we should all calm down and have a brewski. I doubt that the next person of color who gets pulled over in the Boston area will derive much solace from that recommendation.

President Obama called this a “teachable moment” for all us but that presumes that someone has to do the teaching or at least lead the discussion. Many people, perhaps unjustifiably, expected our first black president to do just that, but it seems he really does not appetite for it and quite frankly is rather busy with salvaging two failed wars he inherited from his predecessor in addition to trying to capture terrorists, reforming our financial regulatory system, stimulate job creation, overhauling our education system and, of course, passing a health care reform bill.

Political observers have wondered whether or not President Obama’s ascendancy not only means that we live in a post-racist America, but also if we need an activist class of black leaders anymore. Some have provocatively asked if Obama signifies the “End of Black Politics?” But the President Obama needs a counterweight on these issues, someone to contrast his own views with on racial justice issues and who can forcefully communicate the concerns of black America to everyone else. The president still has to worry about managing the perception that he’s inclined to favor some groups over others.

Of course, scores of black intellectuals and civic leaders have commented on the Gates affair, but no one with the kind of stature necessary to become President Obama’s gadfly on racial issues writ large in the same way President Lydon B. Johnson had to contend with Dr. Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement in the 60’s.

Even the most gifted and talented among us need to be pushed in the right direction to realize their potential.

Check out the president’s remarks on Friday here:

Obama on Skip Gates and Racial Profiling

23 07 2009

At an otherwise snooze fest of a presser devoid of….well news, President Barack Obama offered a few candid remarks about racial profiling that may wind up overshadowing anything having to do with the debate over a public option or how to contain the rising cost of health care premiums. In responding to a question from Lyn Sweet of the Chicago Tribune about what the arrest of Harvard University scholar Henry Louis “Skip” Gates says about race relations in American society, the president was surprisingly pointed in his criticism of the Cambridge police.

The former civil rights lawyer said he thought “the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home” and that “we know separate and apart from this incident is that there’s a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately. That’s just a fact.”

President Obama also sought to disabuse people of the notion that his win in November 2008 or even that of Governor Deval Patrick in Massachuettes in 2006 means we now live in a so-called “post-racial” society where racism is dead when he asserted that there is “indisputable evidence that blacks and Hispanics were being stopped disproportionately. And that is a sign, an example of how, you know, race remains a factor in the society.”

He also said, “I am standing here as testimony to the progress that’s been made. And yet the fact of the matter is, is that, you know, this still haunts us.”

Watch his response:

Henry “Skip” Gates and Dave Chappelle on Racial Profiling

22 07 2009

For those of you not following the whole Professor Henry “Skip” Gates being racially profiled and then arrested at his own home for “disorderly conduct” here is a summary from today’s WaPo:

After returning from a week in China researching the genealogy of cellist Yo-Yo Ma, Gates found himself locked out of his house, and he and his driver began pushing against the front door. The sight of two black men forcing open a door prompted an emergency call to police.

The white officer who arrived found Gates in the house (the driver was gone) and asked him to step outside. Gates refused, and the officer followed him in. Gates showed him his ID, which included his address, then demanded that the officer identify himself. The officer did not comply, Gates said. He then followed the officer outside, saying repeatedly, “Is this how you treat a black man in America?”

The police report said that Gates was “exhibiting loud and tumultuous behavior” and that the officer, Sgt. James Crowley, identified himself. “We stand by whatever the officer said in his report,” said Sgt. James DeFrancesco, a spokesman for the Cambridge Police Department. He would not comment on Gates’s version of his arrest.

The department said that Crowley tried to calm Gates, but that the professor would not cooperate and said, “You don’t know who you’re messing with.”

“These actions on behalf of Gates served no legitimate purpose and caused citizens passing by this location to stop and take notice while appearing surprised and alarmed,” the report said.

Gates said he does not think that anything he did justified the officer’s actions. He walks with a cane and said he did not pose a threat.

“I weigh 150 pounds and I’m 5-7. I’m going to give flak to a big white guy with a gun. I might wolf later, but I won’t wolf then.”

Barack Obama’s election as the nation’s first black president was “huge and important,” Gates said, but “did not translate to structural change. Given the demographics of Cambridge, [the officer] probably voted for Barack. That wasn’t much help to me.”

He added: “I want to be a figure for prison reform. I think that the criminal justice system is rotten.”

Interestingly enough, the governor of Massachusetts Patrick Deval is also black. Neither of which seemed important enough to counter the kind of preconceived notions that often lead to racial profiling even in the liberal Bay State.

Years ago, comedian Dave Chappelle explained why he fears the police in a hypothetical (or maybe real?) account of finding an intruder in his house.  Today more than ever it seems especially apropos.