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.


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.

Not Quite Post-Racial

30 05 2009

From the New York Times:

Few groups conducted public polls on the issue as it faded in recent years, and the results from those that did reveal a consistent ambivalence, said Michael Dimock, a pollster with the nonpartisan Pew Research Center.

When asked a question about “affirmative action or preferential treatment for minorities,” the public has consistently opposed the idea by a margin of two to one. But when asked about “affirmative action programs designed to help women and minorities,” an even bigger majority has supported them.

….. the election of Mr. Obama does not appear to have changed either result.

So I guess we are not quite the post racial society that so many people thought we were after the November election.

I bet once conservatives find their voice in opposing Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination to the Supreme Court its likely that they will attempt to portray her as a quotas obsessed affirmative action baby not worthy of seat on the high court even as they admit that “at least on paper, she has professional qualifications” to serve.

Judging Words and Personal Experience

30 05 2009

Yesterday White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs called Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s remarks in a 2001 speech – that the right has dishonestly pounced on – a “poor choice words. ” Of course, its a predictable turn of events considering how much of the media does not do well with context and nuance. Plus, the White House probably wants her speech to be less of and less of an issue heading into the confirmation hearings. At any event, has a great piece by Sherrilyn A. Ifill, a civil rights lawyer and law professor, explaining how the experiences of judges affect their approach to judicial decision-making.

Money quote:

Justice Thomas is the perfect example of how hard it can be for a judge to lay aside the personal experiences that shape his worldview. His views about the affirmative action cases that come before him are shaped quite clearly by what he regards as the self-sufficient dignity of his hard-working grandfather and the humiliation he says he felt when others believed his scholarly accomplishments were the result of affirmative action.

White judges are also shaped by their background and experiences. They needn’t ever speak of it, simply because their whiteness and gender insulates them from the presumption of partiality and bias that is regularly attached to women judges and judges of color when it comes to matters of race and gender.

Only a judge who is conscious and fully engaged with the reality of how her experiences may bear on her approach to the facts of a case, or sense of social justice, or vision of constitutional interpretation, should be entrusted to sit on the most influential and powerful court in our nation.

Too often we have allowed ourselves to be placated and charmed by fantasies about umpire judges calling “balls and strikes,” without ever asking which league the game is being played in or whether the umpire was standing in the best position to see the play. We forget that when deciding whether a batter checked his swing, the homeplate umpire will routinely ask for the alternative perspective from the first or third base umpire before calling a “swing and a miss” a strike.

The Strident Opposition

19 05 2009

Just as liberal activist groups tried to exert pressure on Democratic Senators in 2005 and 2006 to aggressively block President Bush’s Supreme Court nominees, conservative groups this time around are applying the same kind of pressure on Republican Senators to touch up President Obama’s nominee to replace Justice David Souter. Charlie Savage reported the NYT this weekend that the paper has obtained ten memorandums revealing how conservatives are eager to exploit typical culture war issues “abortion, same-sex marriage, the separation of church” in addition to the propriety of citing foreign law in interpreting the Constitution.

Right wing activists are well aware that the deck is stacked against them, but that has not prevented them from attracting donors to support a media campaign for television, radio, and internet ad buys.  Senate Republicans, on the other hand, are trying to manage expectations for mounting stiff opposition to the nominee while still refusing to give up the filibuster option. According to the NYT, one conservative opposition memo on 9th Circuit Judge Kim Wardlaw also noted her rulings on the death penalty, and separation between church and state and free speech issues.

The Judicial Confirmation Network is leading the effort to try to define  such contenders as  newly confirmed U.S. Solicitor General Elena Kagan, Second Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Sonia Sotomayor, and Seventh Circuit Court Judge Diane Wood, as “way left and outside the American mainstream.” For Sonia Sotomayor, the Judicial Confirmation Network asserts falsely that she has been reversed 100 percent of the time and refers to her ruling in the New Haven firefighter affirmative action case as evidence that she’s for racial quotas. Bloggers at the National Review picked up on a set of controversial remarks by Sotomayor where in a 2002 speech she said, “I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.”

JCN is currently running web ads against Kagan by attacking her for “attempting to keep the military off campus” as Dean of Harvard Law School to support a ban against military recruiters on the because of its enforcement of the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell Policy.”  Other JCN web ads portray Diane Wood as a foe of religious freedom and a looney prochoice advocate with federal judgeship.

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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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First of Many Disagreements to Come

19 12 2008

In picking Reverend Rick Warren deliver the invocation at the inaugural, President-elect Barack Obama earned the ire of the liberal left. It’s a reaction that surely team Obama must have foreseen, but one that may be difficult to quell, at least in the short term.

Joe Solmonese, President of Human Rights Campaign, a pro-gay rights group, called the  invitation “a genuine blow to LGBT Americans.”

At The Nation magazine Sarah Posner writes, “… the choice of Warren is not only a slap in the face to progressive ministers toiling on the front lines of advocacy and service but a bow to the continuing influence of the religious right in American politics.”

Greg Levine of Firedog Lake worries that the President-elect is being too accomodationist to a figure who deserves no olive branch, “… if Barack Obama wants to invite different voices to a discussion, fine, but that is very different from having a known homophobe give a speech at what is likely to be one of the highest profile events in recent US history. That’s not a dialogue—that’s a signal.”

Rev. Warren has been an outspoken and vigorous supporter of banning gay marriage, compared abortion to the Holocaust, thinks evolution is a fiction, and is an ardent foe of anti-stem cell research. To many on the left, he is a culture warrior in the mold of James Dobson or Pat Robertson despite the best-selling author’s support for such causes as global poverty reduction, containing the spread of AIDS and HIV, and combating climate change. All of which are areas where Obama will more than likely want to enlist Warren’s support.

But liberals, many of whom are willing to work with evangelicals on those same issues, do not want any progress of those nobel causes  to come at the expense of the right to marry, sexually reproductive rights, or scientific freedom. While inviting Rev. Warren to deliver the invocation will not automatically usher in the dark ages, it does suggest something that Obama is a little too conciliatory toward the very same people who will try to tear him apart in a few months. Some even worry that its an indication of the very conservative instincts that many fear Obama has thus far managed to conceal.

Other political observers see a stroke of opportunistic genius involved. MSNBC First Read said, “As for the pure politics of this, when you look at the exit polls and see the large numbers of white evangelicals in swing states like North Carolina, Florida and Missouri, as well as emerging battlegrounds like Georgia and Texas, you’ll understand what Obama’s up to. ” As plausible as that may sound to some, I think that’s a tad too cynical.

For his part, Obama said on Thursday at his press conference:

Nevertheless, I had an opportunity to speak, and that dialogue, I think, is a part of what my campaign’s been all about, that we’re never going to agree on every single issue. What we have to do is create an atmosphere where we can disagree without being disagreeable, and then focus on those things that we hold in common as Americans. So Rick Warren has been invited to speak, Dr. Joseph Lowery — who has deeply contrasting views to Rick Warren about a whole host of issues — is also speaking.

During the course of the entire inaugural festivities, there are going to be a wide range of viewpoints that are presented. And that’s how it should be, because that’s what America’s about. That’s part of the magic of this country, is that we are diverse and noisy and opinionated. And so, you know, that’s the spirit in which, you know, we have put together what I think will be a terrific inauguration. And that’s, hopefully, going to be a spirit that carries over into my administration.

Disagreeing without being disagreeable might not cut it with after the fallout over Prop 8, a measure banning same-sex marriagea, in California. Too many feelings are still raw about that lost, and not enough has been done to mend divisions between communities. Plus, given how there are thousands of activists about to descend on DC on January 20th, we could see spontaneous protests take place just as we saw in around the country in the aftermath of the passage of Prop 8. Thus, creating an undesirable subplot to what would otherwise be a much more grander narrative about the dawn of an era.

Most people who voted for Obama assumed that they would not agree with him on every single issue, but they do hope to be on the same wavelength on certain big issues that have a certain visceral dimension to them. And when that is not the case, the President-elect should expect a barrage of intense and persistent criticism, which I am sure he will be able to handle. He’s a big boy.

So simply attributing criticism as mere difference of opinion, especially when its describe as noisy and such, probably will strike many his supporters as dismissive. As David Corn noted on CQ, “…Warren’s opposition to gay rights is more than a mere policy dispute. It is an act of bigotry. Sure, Warren does not believe he is being discriminatory. But that’s what it is.”

By the same token, liberals have to understand that the culture wars don’t mean as much to Obama as they do to his Democratic predecessors. He thinks those issues frames are designed to keep Democrats in the losing column, electorally speaking. So, he will not hesitate to aggressively court evangelicals on issues where they and liberals share common ground.  Doing so, will probably involve at least some symbolic gestures before effectively prying lose the white knuckled grip Republican’s have had on that segment of the voting population as he fulfills his quest to redraw the political map and maintain widespread support for his agenda.

In the final analysis, however, I am not sure if having Rev. Warren at the inauguration is worth the political headache of angering the liberal base. I realize that the favorability ratings are high and that Obama feels as if he could take at hit now, but I would be reluctant to spend hard won political capital among supporters on something that would pose the most activist and partisan segment of my base against me on the last day of the honeymoon.