Lowry on Obama

Most of the conservative reaction to Obama's speech seems to be the usual robotic stuff — moral equivalence! shameful! naive! — but props to Rich Lowry for his reasonably measured response:

I have to go back and read it carefully, so I reserve the right to extend and revise my remarks. But on the whole I thought it was pretty good and I basically agree with Max Boot's take here. Yes, there were many things about which to cavil, there were missed opportunities, and he betrayed the disturbing weakness of his policy in certain key areas, Iran foremost among them. But the speech was an act of diplomacy and as such, it inevitably was going to skate over some inconvenient truths and tilt its presentation in a way to try to make it more persuasive to its target audience. Fundamentally, Obama's goal was to tell the Muslim world, "We respect and value you, your religion and your civilization, and only ask that you don't hate us and murder us in return." Bush tried to deliver the same message over and over again. The difference with Obama is that people might actually be willing to listen.

I guess the question is whether he sticks to his guns here, or whether the wingosphere reeducation squads eventually force him to "extend and revise" his remarks and admit that the speech was, in fact, a betrayal of everything good and decent.  Stay tuned!

It's not just good policy ideas about Medicare and health care costs that fail to become law because entrenched interests oppose them. Good tax reform ideas also die because powerful businesses and interest groups are threatened by them—a fact that helps make our tax code the loophole-ridden mess it is today.

media mattersNot everyone likes Media Matters for America, the left-wing media watchdog that seeks out "conservative misinformation" in the media. I do. Like the excellent ThinkProgress, there's a wonderful, understated humor to a lot of Media Matters' content. Both sites have a writing style that focuses on "just the facts." That style can strip some of the color from colorful events. But some things are surreal, brilliant, and hilarious without any comment added. Take this, for example:

change congress logoI'm beginning to think I was wrong to criticize Change Congress' latest ad on Wednesday. The anti-corruption non profit has been slamming Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson, a Democrat, for his opposition to giving Americans the ability to choose between private insurance plans and a government-run option. Insurance companies hate the idea of a so-called "public option," and they've given Nelson over $2 million in campaign cash. Change Congress has been pointing out that Nelson's position on a public plan and his acceptance of that campaign money, taken together, create the appearance of corruption. (The fact that this even needs to be pointed out is pretty sad.) 

Roll Call reports that Norm Coleman might throw in the towel if the Minnesota Supreme Court rules that Al Franken won last year's senate race:

Senate Republican leaders appear willing to go to the mat for former Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), but it’s unclear whether Coleman wants to go to the mat for himself.

....Sources close to Coleman say the former Senator would likely give up his legal battle and accept defeat if the Minnesota Supreme Court decides in Franken’s favor. That’s because Coleman anticipates that Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) would ultimately sign Franken’s certification papers.

OK, this is pretty iffy.  The only backup is "sources close to Coleman," and those sources only say it's "likely" that he'd give up the fight, and even then it's only if Pawlenty signs the certification papers.  So who knows?

Coleman's appeal is based on the contention that different counties used different standards for counting ballots, and as it happens, I'm tolerably sympathetic to this argument.  I'd like to see states do a better job of ensuring equal treatment for ballots in a variety of respects.  But my opinions don't matter.  What matters is past precedent and accepted practice, and on that score Minnesota actually seems to have handled the recount quite admirably.  Legally, Coleman really doesn't have a leg to stand on, so maybe he and Pawlenty will do the right thing after all. We'll know in a few weeks.

How did Obama's hard truths play in Cairo? Over at Politico, Roger Simon notes that his speech, at times, "fell flatter than a piece of pita bread." And when the president did move his audience to applause, it came at predictable moments. For instance, when Obama spoke of outlawing torture, "applause and whistles of approval" followed. But on other topics--9/11, confronting and isolating "violent extremists," America's "strong bonds" with Israel--silence.

Not that this is relevant to her ability to serve on the Supreme Court, but Sonia Sotomayor clearly has an addictive personality. A profile of the judge in Thursday's Washington Post reveals that during her heady days as a prosecutor in New York, Sotomayor smoked a pack and a half of cigarettes a day. When President Obama was narrowing down his choices to fill the soon to be vacant slot on the U.S. Supreme Court, was he trying to find someone to sneak cigarettes with?

But that's not all:

The prosecutors were expected to juggle 80 to 100 cases at a time, and in her years there Sotomayor tried perhaps 20 cases before juries. She survived by becoming, in the words of her friend Dawn Cardi, a "caffeine addict" who started her day with a Tab, one of maybe 20 she threw back on an average day...

It's great to see that Sotomayor has vices like the rest of us. But 20 a day? I (Nick) like my diet soda, but I've never had more than two 2-liter bottles, and that's on a really bad day. Sotomayor's habit was the equivalent of over three and a half 2-liter bottles a day. That's a lot of cola. And the 936 mg of caffeine in 20 Tabs is the equivalent of around nine brewed coffees. Add in 30 cigarettes, and you've got one wired prosecutor.

Whether she still smokes (or drinks Tab) seems to be a mystery, though Sotomayor reportedly now works out at the gym three days a week or so, suggesting that she may have kicked the habit. Of course, Obama works out a lot too, and he still gets caught puffing once in a while. Perhaps the Judiciary Committee will ask her about this. After all, smoking is probably a lot more relevant to her longevity on the bench than the fact that she has diabetes, which has also come up during the debate.

Obama in Cairo

I didn't watch Obama's big speech in Cairo, but I've read the transcript.  It's first rate: long, detailed, honest, evenhanded, and temperate.  If I have a complaint, it's that it struck me, both literally and figuratively, as maybe a little bit too by-the-numbers.  But I think part of that is a reaction to the high bar Obama has set for himself: his oratory is so good that it's easy to get a little jaded by yet another great performance.

I imagine that this part will end up getting a lot of attention:

Palestinians must abandon violence. Resistance through violence and killing is wrong and does not succeed. For centuries, black people in America suffered the lash of the whip as slaves and the humiliation of segregation. But it was not violence that won full and equal rights. It was a peaceful and determined insistence upon the ideals at the center of America's founding. This same story can be told by people from South Africa to South Asia; from Eastern Europe to Indonesia. It's a story with a simple truth: that violence is a dead end. It is a sign of neither courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on a bus. That is not how moral authority is claimed; that is how it is surrendered.

Now is the time for Palestinians to focus on what they can build. The Palestinian Authority must develop its capacity to govern, with institutions that serve the needs of its people. Hamas does have support among some Palestinians, but they also have responsibilities. To play a role in fulfilling Palestinian aspirations, and to unify the Palestinian people, Hamas must put an end to violence, recognize past agreements, and recognize Israel's right to exist.

At the same time, Israelis must acknowledge that just as Israel's right to exist cannot be denied, neither can Palestine's. The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop.

In some sense, there's nothing new here: most of it is longstanding American policy, and Obama's stand on West Bank settlements was made clear last week.  Still: it might light a fire under both sides.

Nick Baumann calls Obama's speech "Nine Hard Truths," and there's something to that.  It offered something to everyone, but it also offered challenges to everyone.  Marc Lynch has a few initial thoughts here, but warns us to hold off a bit on trying to gauge Arab reaction: "A cautionary note, though — English-language Egyptian blogs are likely to be a particularly poor initial 'focus group' for  judging the response.  But listening to the response and engaging in the debate which emerges will be key, for American officials and for the American public.  Because Obama's address sought to reframe the conversation, we won't know whether it succeeds until we see how the subsequent political debate unfolds."

The full text of the speech is below the fold.

Despite the cynicism that life in Washington breeds, I am almost constantly aghast at how many obviously good, non-controversial policy ideas never get made into law. It obviously has something to do with the fact that good, otherwise non-controversial policy ideas often hurt the economic interests of powerful lobbies or constituencies. Of course, if money didn't buy results in Congress, that wouldn't be such a problem. So it goes. (We'll come back to this.)

One of the problems that our health care system faces is the fact that some areas have way too many doctors and specialists, while other areas have too few. Oversupply of doctors, however, doesn't reduce costs in the way you might expect if you know some basic economics. Instead, it increases costs, such that each additional specialist per 100,000 people in a given region increases health care costs per person. That's one reason why Medicare spends so much more per person in New York than it does in, say, Oklahoma. Peter Bach, a doctor and former Medicare adviser, has an idea about how to fix this:

Here is how it would work. Later this year, the agency would set a 2010 target number for each type of specialist in an oversupplied region. Then it would offer to sign up those doctors at a certain payment rate. The starting rate would be, say, $30 per doctor work unit. (Work units are a measurement that Medicare uses to set its rates; each procedure is assigned a specific number of work units.) This is lower than the $36 per work unit that Medicare pays all doctors today. If too few specialists signed up, the rate would go up, and it would keep rising until there were enough doctors for the area.

"Wow, what a good idea," you might be saying. Don't get too excited. This is exactly the kind of idea I was talking about earlier. It sounds all well and good until you realize that it threatens powerful entrenched interests: doctors and hospitals. Both are big political donors. So even though this idea makes intuitive sense, isn't intrinsically "liberal" or "conservative," and would be in the best interests of almost everyone, it will be very hard to make into law. That's your political system, folks.

Nick neatly synthesized Barack Obama's speech in Cairo, noting that the president tossed hard truths at key parties involved in relations between the West and the Muslim world. At CQPolitics.com, I provided my own analysis: