2009 - %3, June

Coleman Ready to Bow Out?

| Thu Jun. 4, 2009 12:36 PM EDT

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.

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Mixed Reviews for Obama's Speech

| Thu Jun. 4, 2009 12:07 PM EDT

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.

Sonia Sotomayor's Addiction Problem

| Thu Jun. 4, 2009 12:07 PM EDT

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

| Thu Jun. 4, 2009 11:50 AM EDT

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.

One Simple Way to Reduce Health Care Costs, And Why It Won't Happen

| Thu Jun. 4, 2009 11:13 AM EDT

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.

Obama's Tough Tour de Force in Cairo

| Thu Jun. 4, 2009 10:41 AM EDT

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:

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Obama's Cairo Speech

| Thu Jun. 4, 2009 10:40 AM EDT

President Barack Obama gave a long speech in Cairo on Thursday morning. He kept it real.

Healthcare and Bankruptcy

| Thu Jun. 4, 2009 2:03 AM EDT

On the campaign trail, Barack Obama frequently cited research showing that medical expenses were a contributing factor in 55% of all personal bankruptcies.  A new study says he was wrong. It was actually more than that:

The study found that medical bills, plus related problems such as lost wages for the ill and their caregivers, contributed to 62% of all bankruptcies filed in 2007....Medical insurance isn't much help, either. About 78% of bankruptcy filers burdened by healthcare expenses were insured, according to the survey, to be published in the August issue of the American Journal of Medicine.

....Most people who filed medical-related bankruptcies "were solidly middle class before financial disaster hit," the study says. Two-thirds were homeowners, and most had gone to college.

The study does not suggest that medical expenses were the sole cause for these bankruptcies, but it does identify them as a contributing factor. The increase in such filings occurred despite a 2005 law aimed at making it more difficult for individuals to seek court protection from creditors.

Among bankruptcy filers, those without insurance reported average medical expenses of $26,971.  Those with private insurance reported average medical bills of $17,749.

City Birds Sing Louder, Faster

| Wed Jun. 3, 2009 5:54 PM EDT

Seems like big city life is faster, even for the birds. A European survey of songbirds has found that city birds sing louder than their country brethren. City birds tweeted faster, and preferred to sing songs that were shorter in duration than birds from the 'burbs. (Maybe all the urban excitement reduces their attention span?) The study also revealed that songbirds prefer to mate with birds who sing similar songs: so country birds are attracted to the slow, longer, lower-pitched songs, and city birds want a mate who can belt it out high and fast and loud. The scientists have theorized that avians in urban areas sing at a higher pitch to be heard above background noises like traffic and construction. If these street-savvy birds are pushed into the country because of changing climate, though, they may have to change their tune.

George Allen's New Macaca Moment? He's Back Online to Diss Cap & Trade

| Wed Jun. 3, 2009 5:52 PM EDT

Former Virginia Senator George Allen, whose 2006 "Macaca" speech turned into the most famous online gotcha video of all time, has resurfaced after a long political quiesence--and, of all places, online. In a new Web video for the American Energy Freedom Center, which he now leads, he replaces a brown-skinned menace with hints of a green one: Climate legislation. The video appears to be the first installment of what Allen describes as monthly "kitchen table talks" in which he'll "tell people the truthful story about America's energy potential."

The American Energy Freedom Center draws upon an oily pedigree. It is a partner group of the Houston-based Institute for Energy Research, which is funded in part by Exxon-Mobil and is headed by Robert Bradley Jr., who worked as a public policy director at Enron and a speechwriter for CEO Ken Lay.

So why have these guys turned to Allen? According to the Center for Responsive Politics, before Allen lost his Senate seat in 2006, he was Congress' number 3 recepient of campaign cash from the energy sector . Over his career he raised $1 million from energy companies, including $19,400 from Exxon Mobil. He also brings strong connections to other lawmakers as a former presidential hopeful, chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which plays a key role in crafting energy legislation. Moreover, as of 2006 Allen had personally invested somewhere between $100,000 and $200,000 in energy companies.

In short, he doesn't seem like the kind of guy I'd trust to sit in my kitchen and tell me how America should "promote the clean, creative, and thoughtful utilization of American energy." But here's his pitch, complete with a nifty lapel pin: