2009 - %3, July

The Earmark That Couldn't Get Shot Down

| Thu Jul. 30, 2009 11:59 AM PDT

The over-budget and technically flawed Kinetic Energy Interceptor program may have been axed by the Pentagon this spring, but it lives on in the earmark-laden defense appropriations bill currently under consideration by the House. You know, the bill that Obama threatened to veto because it contained billions in pet projects for lawmakers seeking to bring home the bacon to their districts. Much of the work for the KEI project, a missile defense system designed to "destroy enemy ballistic missiles during their boost and early midcourse phases of flight," happens to be taking place in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. That's the hometown of Jack Murtha, whose unrivaled and unapologetic pursuit of pork has earned him congressional infamy—and landed him uncomfortably close to an FBI probe targeting lobbyists and defense contractors with whom he's had dealings. The Washington Post points to one reason why the terminated KEI program is nevertheless poised to reap an additional $80 million in the appropriations bill. 

...Northrop Grumman, the principal contractor, is building a technology center in Murtha's district that would bring 150 related jobs, and Murtha's subcommittee sought its continuation as a way "to recoup the technology," according to an appropriations staff member, who was not authorized to speak on the record.

 

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Selling Health Care

| Thu Jul. 30, 2009 11:21 AM PDT

Fiore Cartoon: Beerplomacy

Thu Jul. 30, 2009 11:07 AM PDT

Racial profiling, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Iran's nuclear ambitions....The world can be a brutal place. Luckily, there's beerplomacy—the booze that makes friends.

Watch satirist Mark Fiore's ad for the cure-all below:

On Bullshit Dectectors

| Thu Jul. 30, 2009 11:05 AM PDT

When it comes to politics, it really helps to have a bullshit dectector. I won't pretend that the government never does crazy, stupid things. But when a big, politically controversial bill like health care reform is being written, you should generally assume that the people who are writing it want it to pass. Thus it is unlikely that they will include provisions in the bill that are likely to be universally unpopular and drag the whole bill down with them.

If someone tells you that the bill is going to require that seniors get Soylent Green-style "end-of-life counseling" that will advise them to die, you should immediately recognize that they are bullshitting you. This is doubly true if the person saying this is a notorious liar. Likewise, if someone tells you that health care reform would mean "a doctor would lose his license for providing health care to someone over age 59," you should probably recognize that person is also an insane liar.

Turn on your bullshit detectors, folks. This is not that hard.

Sell Me!

| Thu Jul. 30, 2009 10:53 AM PDT

Barack Obama says he's frustrated that it's so hard to get across his healthcare reform message.  Ezra Klein doesn't think selling it is the problem:

The lived experience of most Americans is that health care is too expensive, but not so bad. Similarly, it's that Europe might do a bit better than us on some things and quite a bit worse on others, but they're not very far ahead on anything. And the Veteran's Administration is terrible — didn't you hear about Walter Reed (which most people don't realize is an army, not VA, hospital)?

I don't think the problem for health-care reform is how it's being sold. The problem is the congressional process, and maybe the fact that it's hard to say what this bill gives the median American because it's trying so hard to leave the median American alone.

As near as I can tell I'm practically alone on this, but I think this is absolutely wrong.  It's not that congressional process isn't important.  Of course it is.  This is congressional legislation, after all.

But underneath that, it's all about how it's sold.  Everything has to have a constituency if it's going to get passed.  For ag subsidies it's farmers.  For lax financial regulation, it's banks.  For tax cuts it's rich people.

For healthcare it's.....I dunno.  Who?  But that's the point.  Everyone has been so hung up on congressional process that they seem to have forgotten that Congress responds to the public.  If constituents are mad as hell that their healthcare isn't as good as France's, they'll flood congressional offices with phone calls.  But if they think America has the best healthcare in the world, while the rest of the world is a socialist dystopia of ramshackle hospitals, yearlong waits for hip replacements, and harried doctors who can't see you for months and treat you like a postal customer when you finally get in — well, who's going to get pissed off about the occasional scuffle with their insurance company?  And if the public isn't worked up, then Congress won't get worked up either.

This has always been about public opinion.  Everything is about public opinion.  It's about public opinion being strong enough to overcome the resistance of whatever corporate interests are on the other side.  For some reason, though, liberals don't seem to get that anymore, and because of that we don't spend enough time on either side of the basic vox populi equation: (a) hammering home why individuals, personally, should be unhappy with the status quo, and (b) promising them, personally, lots of cool new stuff if they buy into change.

You don't have to lie to accomplish this.  But you do have to sell, the same way any salesman anywhere sells stuff.  That means understanding your audience, figuring out what they're afraid of, promising them something that will make them better off, overcoming their objections, and then convincing them that they have to call now to take advantage of this one-time offer!  Every pitchman on late night TV understands this.  Why don't we?

Simple Answers to Simple Questions, Max Baucus Edition

| Thu Jul. 30, 2009 10:40 AM PDT

The Hill has a story today speculating about the possibility that the Democrats might take away Max Baucus' chairmanship of the Senate Finance Committee because Max Baucus is such a terrible chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. Brian Beutler's headline at TPM asks "Will Senate Democrats Strip Baucus Of His Chairmanship?" No. No, they won't. The Hill got Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) to talk about Harkin's idea of biannual confidence votes in committee chairmen, and then got one other senator to talk about it with the caveat that he would "send a SWAT team after you" if his name was printed. Reform is imminent!

(Simple Answers to Simple Questions is an Atrios trademark.)

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Maybe It's Max Baucus Who Is Playing Us

| Thu Jul. 30, 2009 10:21 AM PDT

After lots of noise in recent days that the Senate Finance Committee might be nearing a final, bipartisan deal on a bill, CNN reports the (gasp!) shocking news that Mike Enzi (R-Wy.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) think that the bill is "not ready for prime time" and couldn't possibly be voted on before the August recess.

A Daily Kos diarist suggests that this is a sign that committee chair Max Baucus, who has supposedly been trying to get Enzi and Grassley on board, "got played" by the Republicans, who never intended to allow a vote before recess (or perhaps ever).

But why does it have to be that Baucus "got played"? Max Baucus is a smart guy, and he's been supposedly working on this for months and months. He has repeatedly promised bills and repeatedly broken his own deadlines. At what point do we have to start assuming that it's Baucus who is acting in bad faith? Max Baucus runs the Senate Finance Committee. The Senate Finance Committee has repeatedly failed to produce a health care bill. If a bill is delayed long enough, health care reform could fail entirely.

Sometimes the simplest explanation is the right one. Maybe Max Baucus just doesn't think health care reform should happen.

Does anyone think that the Republicans are going to end up voting for the health care bill on the floor anyway? News flash: unless a bill is produced that magically becomes wildly popular, they're not going to vote for it. They're going to vote against it and use it as a wedge issue. That's politics. Max Baucus is not so stupid that he does not see this. He must know that the GOP is probably not negotiating in good faith. So don't you have to conclude that he just isn't that interested in health care reform? There are plenty of reasons to believe that's what's really going on: Baucus takes huge amounts of money from the health care industry. And even if that's not a problem, this probably is.

Protests Continue in Iran

| Thu Jul. 30, 2009 9:53 AM PDT

Forty days after the deadliest of last month's clashes in Tehran, Borzou Daragahi and Ramin Mostaghim of the LA Times report on the latest batch of confrontations:

Thousands and possibly tens of thousands of mourners, many of them black-clad young women carrying roses, overwhelmed security forces today at Tehran's largest cemetery to gather around the grave of Neda Agha-Soltan, the young woman whose videotaped shooting at a June 20 demonstration stunned the world.

....Afterward, the crowds began to gather in front of central Tehran's Grand Mossala mosque, defying authorities who had prohibited the use of the site. Protesters chanted slogans as they rode the subway to the venue, setting the stage for more clashes as dusk approached.

Jon Leyne, the BBC's Tehran correspondent, comments:

It's an ominous moment for the government. Those who run the Islamic Republic know only too well the cycle of protests, killings, then Arbayeen ceremonies from 1979, a cycle that helped bring them to power. They must fear history repeating itself, as similar anniversaries approach 40 days after protesters killed in the recent protests.

....The protests now are not remotely on the scale of the hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of demonstrators who came onto the streets immediately after the election. But they are happening despite repeated threats and intimidation, and they are keeping up the pressure on the government.

This isn't over yet.  There are too many power brokers on the side of the demonstrators who have a vested interest in keeping things hot.  Stay tuned.

Political Reform and Revolution: Yglesias Responds

| Thu Jul. 30, 2009 9:41 AM PDT

Matt Yglesias has responded to questions (raised by The Economist's anonymous Democracy in America blogger and yours truly) about his supposed drift towards Matt Taibbi-style broad cynicism about America's political system. Yglesias points out, quite rightly, that he's always been more of a Taibbi-ite than DiA gave him credit for:

I also would like it noted, for the record, that my interest in political reform does not stem from any “disappointment” in how Barack Obama isn’t able to get anything done. I was writing about this back in December because I always knew that Barack Obama wouldn’t be able to get anything done.

Duly noted. Yglesias also provides a long list of political reforms—DC statehood, the elimination of the filibuster, the end of the electoral college, etc.—that he thinks would improve matters, claiming that "It wouldn’t take a 'revolution' to achieve any of that." That's where he's dodging the question.

Most reasonable people (presumably even Taibbi) are, like Yglesias, "skeptical about the utility of violence in bringing about positive political change." But the reason Yglesias could so confidently assert back in December that Barack Obama wasn't going to be able to get anything done was that the political reforms Yglesias suggests are actually incredibly unlikely to happen.

Just because a reform is possible or even theoretically easy (i.e., doing away with the filibuster or carving out a federal district and making the rest of DC a state) doesn't mean it has any realistic chance of being enacted. So that puts pragmatists like Yglesias and Ezra Klein back in the same spot. If what the country needs is unlikely to happen without political reform, and political reform is very unlikely to happen, what is a pragmatist to do? I don't have the answer. But it's one thing to say a reform doesn't require a violent revolution for it to happen. It's another to explain how the reform is actually going to happen, or how the people who support it are going to make it happen.

I'm also still interested in a Port Huron-style Juicebox Mafia statement of principles.

PS: I'm using the term "Juicebox Mafia" with the understanding that it has been co-opted and is no longer a slur.

A Beer in the White House

| Thu Jul. 30, 2009 9:25 AM PDT

You know, back when Obama first told the press that he'd invited Skip Gates and James Crowley to the White House for a beer, I thought it was about as brilliant a piece of political ju jitsu as I'd ever seen.  A beer!  In the White House!  But now that Der Tag is here — well, I'm beset with a grim sense of foreboding.  It just doesn't seem like quite such a great idea in the cold light of day, and it's almost certain to keep this ridiculous incident in the news for another week or so.  Plus there are so many ways it could go pear shaped I can hardly count them.  So we'll see.  Can Obama turn political dross into gold once again?  I wouldn't bet against him, but I sure wish he were spending the day instead with some poor woman who got screwed by her insurance company or something.

Speaking of which, Obama's "bill of insurance rights" is good stuff.  I wish he'd unveiled it about, oh, six months ago or so, but better late than never:

No discrimination for preexisting conditions.

No exorbitant out-of-pocket expenses, deductibles or co-pays.

No cost-sharing for preventive care.

No dropping of coverage for the seriously ill.

No gender discrimination.

No annual or lifetime caps on coverage.

Extended coverage for young adults.

Guaranteed insurance renewal.

I can't predict the future any better than anyone else, but I think this is the right way to sell healthcare reform.  It won't satisfy the wonks, who will continue to debate public options vs. exchanges vs. co-ops, but it's the kind of thing the general public wants to hear.  There should have been a ninth item about being able to see the doctor of your choice, and maybe a tenth about guaranteeing all health decision are between you and your doctor, but it's still better than nothing.  And a lot better than most of the stuff we've seen before.