Kevin Drum

Bipartisan Healthcare Watch

| Mon Jan. 25, 2010 4:38 PM EST

So if Democrats decide to start over and reach out to Republicans to pass a bipartisan healthcare bill, what would Republicans be willing to support? Here's John McCain:

....overhauling medical malpractice lawsuits, allowing residents of one state to buy health insurance from a company in another state, and granting tax credits for people who purchase health insurance on their own.

And here's Mitch McConnell:

You start with junk lawsuits against doctors and hospitals. Interstate competition among insurance companies. And many of my members would be lookin’ — would — would be willing to look at equalizing the tax code. Right now, if you’re a corporation and you provide insurance — for your employees, you get to deduct it on your corporate tax return. But if you’re an individual on the individual market, you don’t.

That's two Republican leaders saying exactly the same thing, so I think it's safe to say that this is pretty much the GOP party line right now. Nothing about preexisting conditions, nothing about Medicaid, nothing about cost control, nothing about subsidies. Just a tired attack on medical malpractice suits, a gift to the insurance industry, and a tax cut. That's the Republican plan.

Lots of Washington pundits are willing to concede that Republicans were "uncooperative" on healthcare, but most of them also seem to think that maybe if Democrats had tried a little harder they could have talked them into some kind of compromise. This really ought to stop that kind of talk. These suggestions are little more than jokes, not the kind of thing that comes from a party that takes healthcare reform seriously.

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Throwing the Left a Bone

| Mon Jan. 25, 2010 4:13 PM EST

Florida Senator Bill Nelson had this to say on Good Morning America today:

"The president’s instincts are right in the mainstream of America. I think he’s allowed the left wing pull him too much in that direction. But he always comes back into the center."

This is one of those things that makes me feel like I live not just on a different coast than the Washingtonocracy, but on a different planet. My take on Obama for quite a while has been exactly the opposite of Nelson's: I think one of his big problems is that he considers it a grave character defect to ever openly throw a bone to the left. Throwing those bones — even smallish, symbolic ones — would have done him an immense amount of good during his first year, but he just couldn't bring himself to do it. Maybe a firm statement about DADT even if action didn't come until later. Or a serious effort to claw back the AIG bonuses even if it didn't work. Or — obviously — full-throated support of the public option even if it eventually got killed by Joe Lieberman. But none of that happened. I've come to the conclusion that he's so hypersensitive to accusations of "pandering to the left" that he'll do almost anything to avoid them.

But I'm a partisan liberal, so maybe I'm just blind to all the bone throwing he's done. Feel free to set me straight in comments.

Quote of the Day: Time for CEOs to Say "Enough!"

| Mon Jan. 25, 2010 2:44 PM EST

From Sen. Jim DeMint (R–Wingnuttia), praising the Citizens United decision that allows big corporations to directly contribute to political campaigns:

I think people should be able to come together in associations and organizations and spend money to get their message out.  I think that's going to promote the democratic process, instead of really what we've got now, is where you essentially give the labor unions carte blanche over our system, grassroots as well as spending.

Um, yeah. We really need to do something about the skyrocketing power of labor unions in American life. Especially after that economic meltdown they caused in 2008. You'd think people would learn.

Everything New is Old Again

| Mon Jan. 25, 2010 2:10 PM EST

Ross Douthat, Bill Kristol's replacement as one of the New York Times' resident conservative columnists, is probably tired of the word "wunderkind" and phrases like "youngest op-ed columnist the paper had ever hired."1  But he gets 'em both anyway in a profile by Mark Oppenheimer in the latest issue of Mother Jones. I guess it comes with the territory. In any case, here he takes a crack at explaining how he feels about abortion:

He began with the boilerplate position: "It would probably be a blanket ban on abortion with exceptions for rape, incest, and to save the life of the mother." He went on, however, to say such a ban would require "radical experimentation with the welfare state" and likely "a lot of new welfare agencies of one kind or another," plus orphanages and an expanded "network of crisis pregnancy centers." Nobody involved would go to jail, he said, as "it is possible to believe that abortion is murder and also believe it is a completely unique form of murder. Abortion would be, you know, if you have first-degree murder, second and third degree...it's like seventh-degree murder or something."

"But," he quickly noted, "those things aren't on the table."

Actually, that's not bad for a guy who's pretty close to an abortion absolutist. "Seventh-degree murder" is about as good an excuse for not jailing abortionists as I've heard. I still don't get the rape and incest exception, though. If it's murder, why is it OK to murder children born of rape or incest?

Anyway, Ross has led an interesting life and Oppenheimer's piece is a good read. Check it out.

1OK, I don't actually know if he is. But if it were me, I would be.

The End of Anonymity (Sort Of)

| Mon Jan. 25, 2010 1:27 PM EST

The Economist's blogs have officially entered the 20th century:

Today we are changing the way we write our bylines [i.e., they are actually using bylines for the first time ever. –ed] in order to make it clearer that different correspondents are writing different posts. We hope this will facilitate discussion between our bloggers and with other blogs, and clear up any confusion about multiple correspondents in the same city.

Some readers will wonder why we do not move to full bylines, as opposed to signing only our initials. We still consider this blog a collective effort, where what is written is more important than who writes it. This is how we have run The Economist in print since 1843, and the newspaper will remain without initials. We hope this anonymity liberates correspondents to write what they think and not worry about how it makes them look to the world. Even as we sign our initials on this blog, we hope the focus remains on the substance of our posts, not on us.

That particular post was written by "R.M." Next step: force the Economist kicking and screaming into the 21st century by figuring out who the names are behind all the initials and posting them somewhere for easy reference. This is clearly a job for crowdsourcing, so let's get cracking, people.

In the meantime, I guess this means I can suspend my semi-boycott of Economist blogs. Progress!

UPDATE 1: A start: R.A. = Ryan Avent, G.I. = Greg Ip. Keep 'em coming!

UPDATE 2: R.M. = Roger McShane.

UPDATE 3: M.S. = Matt Steinglass.

UPDATE 4: E.G. = Erica Grieder.

UPDATE 5: A motherlode of names! R.L.G. = Robert Lane Greene, J.F. = Jon Fasman, J.S. = Julian Sanchez, P.D. = Peter David, A.S. = Allison Schrager.

UPDATE 6: N.M. = Noah Millman, W.W. = Will Wilkinson.

Polarization and Presidents

| Mon Jan. 25, 2010 12:34 PM EST

Ezra Klein points to some recent research showing that there's been a trend over the past few decades for Congress to spend ever more time on presidential initiatives. It's up from about 15% of Senate votes in the early 80s to 25% today:

If you're wondering why this matters, the answer is simple: polarization. When the president takes a position on an issue, that issue polarizes instantly. To test this, Lee looked at "nonideological" issues — that is to say, issues where the two sides didn't have clear positions. In the Senate, only 39 percent of those issues ended in party-line votes. But if the president took a position on the issue, that jumped to 56 percent. In other words, if the president proposed the "More Puppies Act," the minority is likely to suddenly discover it holds fervently pro-cat beliefs.

So: more presidential initiatives, more polarization. Or is it the other way around? Has increased polarization forced presidents to be more proactive setting the legislative agenda — or, at the very least, forced presidents to take a public stand on more issues? Seems to me that could play a pretty big role in this dynamic.

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Getting to Yes

| Mon Jan. 25, 2010 12:23 AM EST

The top line takeaway of this short piece in Newsweek is that a senior Democratic aide says Nancy Pelosi is "way short" of the votes needed to pass the Senate healthcare bill. But reading further, the news is more positive:

The big hang-up is about the Cadillac tax passed by the Senate, which would pay for the full reform package by taxing people with top-shelf health-care plans (as opposed to just taxing the wealthiest Americans, which the House approved in its bill). House Democrats are also uneasy about the Nebraska “Cornhusker Kickback” compromise that initially won over Sen. Ben Nelson....This aide says that unless Senate Democrats will commit to repealing it through reconciliation, Pelosi can’t get to 218.

....For now, senior lawmakers are working the phones furiously to talk up the idea of the Senate promising to retroactively unravel several distasteful components. If House Democrats make the good-faith deal, Pelosi is arguing that the Senate promise would be easy to keep. Reconciliation votes require only a 51-vote majority. Or even 50, in which case Vice President Biden could break the tie.

This aide says that leadership considers reconciliation, with the House conditioning its support on promised fixes in the Senate, as the much more strategic route than breaking the package into parts, which isn’t ideal because all of the parts are interlocking. Asked what the timetable would be for that, this aide says weeks, not months.

Italics mine. This is good news: both that passing the Senate bill along with an agreement to fix specific pieces later via reconciliation is the preferred strategy, as well as the fact that the Democratic leadership is apparently "working the phones furiously" to make it happen. After all, it shouldn't be too hard: a deal on the Cadillac tax was cut over a week ago, and Ben Nelson has already agreed to give up his special deal for Nebraska. If those are the biggest roadblocks, there's really nothing in the way of reaching an agreement to proceed.

Next step: how about actually talking about this stuff in public and making it clear that this is what everyone is working toward? Assuming it actually is, of course.

Posting Bail

| Sun Jan. 24, 2010 8:23 PM EST

The county jail in Lubbock, Texas, is bursting at the seams. But it's not because crime is up dramatically. Nor because convictions are up dramatically. It's largely because the Lubbock jail has a lot of inmates who are sitting around waiting for trial because they can't afford to post bail:

Twenty years ago nationally and in Lubbock, most defendants were released on their own recognizance. In other words, they were trusted to show up again. Now most defendants are given bail — and most have to pay a bail bondsman to afford it.

Considering that the vast majority of nonviolent offenders released on their own recognizance have historically shown up for their trials, releasing more inmates on their own recognizance seems like an easy solution for Lubbock. But that is not the solution Lubbock has chosen.

County officials have instead decided to build a brand new megajail, costing nearly $110 million. And Lubbock is not alone. At least 10 counties every year consider building new jails to ease a near-epidemic of jail overcrowding nationwide, according to industry experts.

That's from NPR's Laura Sullivan. So why the change over the past couple of decades? Mostly, Sullivan says, "to protect the interests of a powerful bail bonding industry." Gruesome details in this accompanying piece. Both are well worth a read.

(Via Jim Fallows.)

Gates in Pakistan

| Sun Jan. 24, 2010 3:12 PM EST

Juan Cole says that this week's visit to Pakistan by Defense Secretary Robert Gates "has in many ways been public relations disaster":

In one of a series of gaffes, he seemed to admit in a television interview that the private security firm, Blackwater, was active in Pakistan.

....Dawn, a relatively pro-Western English daily, quoted the exchange, saying Gates was asked by the interviewer on a private television station, “And I want to talk, of course, about another issue that has come up again and again about the private security companies that have been operating in Iraq, in Afghanistan and now in Pakistan. . . Xe International, formerly known as Blackwater and Dyncorp. Under what rules are they operating here in Pakistan?”

Gates replied, “Well, they’re operating as individual companies here in Pakistan, in Afghanistan and in Iraq because there are theatres of war involving the United States.”

....Gates went to Pakistan to emphasize to Islamabad that the US was not again going to abandon it and Afghanistan, as it had in the past. Pakistan, he wanted to say, is now a very long-term ally of Washington. He hoped for cooperation against the Haqqani, Taliban and Hizb-i Islami guerrillas. He wanted to allay conspiracy theories about US mercenary armies crawling over Pakistan, occasionally blowing things up (and then blaming the explosions on Pakistanis) in order to destabilize the country and manipulate its policies.

The message his mission inadvertently sent was that the US is now increasingly tilting to India and wants to put it in charge of Afghanistan security; that Pakistan is isolated; that he is pressuring Pakistan to take on further counter-insurgency operations against Taliban in the Northwest, which the country flatly lacks the resources to do; and that Pakistani conspiracy theories about Blackwater were perfectly correct and he had admitted it.

More at the link.

Cross Over Crosswords

| Sun Jan. 24, 2010 2:54 PM EST

I admit that this story sounds an awful lot like an urban legend, but if it is, at least it's an amusing one. It's from Simon Bucks about a complaint to a British newspaper:

The paper's crossword had a clue which invited the solver to name the current beau of a young actress....Not long after it appeared, a letter was delivered to the paper's managing editor from one of London's top libel lawyers. It said they represented a young man, also an actor. They complained that the number of letters in the answer to the clue was the same as the numbers of letters in the surname of their client! Since he was adamant that he was NOT stepping out with the young woman in question, he had been potentially libelled, so would the paper a) promise not to do it again, b) pay his costs and c) pay damages.

According to Bucks, the paper's crossword editor "is planning to leave a gap when he publishes the puzzle's answers, with a note blaming the omission on legal considerations." I guess when that happens we'll know for sure that the story is true. Hopefully some British reader can give me a heads up if they run across this. (Via Felix Salmon.)