The Democratic Plan

Ezra Klein says a record isn't enough. Democrats need a vision statement just like the GOP:

Telling them to look at what Democrats have attempted but failed to pass isn't enough. Voters don't know about the 372 bills the House has passed and the Senate has ignored, or the 44 bills the Senate has passed and the House hasn't acted on. And legislation is not synonymous with vision. Legislation is about what you can get done. It's about compromises with Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins. It's about the Senate's calendar. It's about the committee structure. Vision is about what you want to get done, and it's worthwhile for voters to know that, too.

Meanwhile.....

A senior Senate Democratic aide told TPM today there won't be a vote on extending the Bush tax cuts in the upper chamber before the November election....The aide said it's already a winning message without a vote since Obama and Democrats have framed the debate as the Republicans being for the rich and Democrats wanting to help the middle class...."We have a winning message now, why muddy it up with a failed vote, because, of course, Republicans are going to block everything," the aide said.

This is why there won't be a Democratic vision statement of any substance. They don't want to run on their record because they're scared to death of it. Voters hate the stimulus, they hate TARP, they don't care about financial reform, and if they don't exactly hate healthcare reform, they aren't too thrilled with it either. And since Democrats have seemingly given up on fighting back and persuading people that this was all good stuff, a defense of their record is out.

And the future? Well, Republicans have the advantage that they can promise pretty much anything. Sure, you'd have to be pretty gullible to think they're seriously planning to reduce the deficit, but there are plenty of forgetful people out there. They'll believe whatever Republicans say. Democrats, however, can't do this. I mean, what are they going to say? That we need a climate bill, repeal of DADT, more stimulus, and immigration reform? Even a forgetful electorate isn't that forgetful.

And anyway, Dems already have a winning message! Just like the man said. Why, just look at the polls.

The Threat Above

A regular reader tells me to stop wasting my time on trivial stuff like climate change and the financial collapse and instead focus on what's really important. PR Newswire via Reuters delivers:

Witness testimony from more than 120 former or retired military personnel points to an ongoing and alarming intervention by unidentified aerial objects at nuclear weapons sites, as recently as 2003. In some cases, several nuclear missiles simultaneously and inexplicably malfunctioned while a disc-shaped object silently hovered nearby. Six former U.S. Air Force officers and one former enlisted man will break their silence about these events at the National Press Club and urge the government to publicly confirm their reality.

....Declassified U.S. government documents, to be distributed at the event, now substantiate the reality of UFO activity at nuclear weapons sites extending back to 1948. The press conference will also address present-day concerns about the abuse of government secrecy as well as the ongoing threat of nuclear weapons.

I assure you this is just the tip of the iceberg. Do you really think these disc-shaped objects only care about our nuclear weapons? Don't be naive. They're in league with the UN and they're coming for our guns too. Please take all appropriate precautions.

Healthcare Reform's First Day

On Thursday the first wave of changes from the healthcare reform bill take effect:

Starting now, insurance companies will no longer be permitted to exclude children because of pre-existing health conditions....Insurers also will be prohibited from imposing lifetime limits on benefits.

The law will now forbid insurers to drop sick and costly customers after discovering technical mistakes on applications. It requires that they offer coverage to children under 26 on their parents’ policies. It establishes a menu of preventive procedures, like colonoscopies, mammograms and immunizations, that must be covered without co-payments. And it allows consumers who join a new plan to keep their own doctors and to appeal insurance company reimbursement decisions to a third party.

....Polls have found that many of the provisions taking effect Thursday are popular, tugging at a national sense of fairness and feeding off distrust of health insurers. They bear particular appeal for the 14 million people who must buy policies on the individual market rather than through employers and are thus at the mercy of the industry. And they land on the heels of a government report showing that the recession drove the number of uninsured Americans to 50.7 million in 2009, up 10 percent in a year.

It's a start.

Obama and His Critics

The current rumor circulating among Beltway types is that Barack Obama is intent on replacing Larry Summers with a female CEO, presumably to blunt critisism that his economic team is both all male and all academic. Jonathan Bernstein:

This is a remarkably stupid plan, if true. It will not “disarm” critics who say that Obama is reflexively anti-business, any more than having Bob Gates at Defense “disarmed” critics of Obama's approach to terror — indeed, actually expanding the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan and killing a lot of terrorists didn't slow down those who were intent on claiming that Obama was some sort of secret bin Laden sympathizer. It doesn't work like that. Critics will say what they will say, and it mostly doesn't matter, and at any rate there's nothing you can do about it. What you can do, however, is have a well-run White House and do your best to have a well-run government.

I agree with Jonathan's general point that partisan critics are going to snipe at you no matter what. Still, I'd push back just a little bit on this. First, I think that keeping Bob Gates at Defense and stepping up the Afghanistan war has slowed down some of his critics. Nothing will shut them up completely, of course, and no one expects that. But guys like Bill Kristol have probably been a good deal less vocal than they would have been if Defense had gone to Richard Danzig or Michèle Flournoy, Pentagon reform has probably gone a lot more smoothly, and Republicans in Congress have been more tractable. Overall, I'd say that holding on to Gates has worked out exactly the way Obama expected.

As for having a well-run White House and a well-run government — well, I'm all in favor of that. But Obama has had a pretty well run White House and has also been pretty dedicated to getting policy right. The result has been bleak. The stimulus probably would have done him more good if he'd paid less attention to wonky ideas like spreading out the tax cut over time, and healthcare would have been more popular with both the lefty base and the general public if he'd paid less attention to policy and more attention to politics. Frankly, having a well-run government doesn't buy you much of anything.

That said, I agree that the whole female CEO thing is pretty stupid, if true. But that's not because this kind of thing can't have a positive effect. It's just because this particular thing is unusually vapid.

Voting on Taxes

Apparently all the Blue Dogs in the House are terrified of being asked to vote on a bill that would extend only the tax cuts on the middle class. Jonathan Chait comments:

So the issue here is that they're afraid a vote to extend tax cuts will be turned into a vote to raise taxes, and thereby into a vote to raise taxes on the middle class. Okay, I kind of get that — this presumes massive communicatory incompetence by these Democrats, but that may be a fair assumption. So why not just hold two different votes? They can vote for both the universal tax cuts and the upper-class-only tax cuts. If both bills pass, Obama can sign the first and veto the second. If Republicans block the universal tax cuts, Democrats can make that their campaign issue.

Or, better yet, a vote on the middle-class-only cuts followed by a vote on the upper-only cuts. Either way, though, I assume this is too easy a solution and doesn't work because there's not enough time to schedule two votes? Or the Blue Dogs don't want two votes? Or something. Not sure what, though.

About That Filibuster Proof Majority

Over at the Economist, E.M. writes about Harry Reid's failed attempt to pass the DREAM Act and repeal Don't Ask Don't Tell:

Politically speaking, it is arguably better for the Democrats that these measures do not pass: many of their disappointed backers will doubtless resolve to head to the polls in November to punish the recalcitrant Republicans and reward the Democrats, in the hope of better luck next time.

But that thinking rests on the assumption that advocates of gay rights or immigration amnesties or healthy firemen will blame the Republicans (and the filibuster) for their misfortune. The problem is that increasing numbers of them blame Mr Reid and the Democrats instead. They, after all, had the votes before the death of Ted Kennedy to push all these measures through the Senate, but instead hummed and hawed until it was too late. Mr Reid cannot embarrass the Republicans by inducing them to filibuster a seemingly unobjectionable bill without reminding the left of how little the Democrats did with their filibuster-proof majority when they had it. And the more used Democratic activists feel, the less likely they are to rush to the polls to castigate the Republicans.

Well, let's at least get our history straight. Until Al Franken was sworn in on July 7, the Democratic caucus in the Senate stood at 59. After that it was technically up to 60, but Ted Kennedy hadn't cast a vote in months and was housebound due to illness. He died a few weeks later and was replaced by Paul Kirk on September 24, finally bringing the Democratic majority up to 60 in practice as well as theory. After that the Senate was in session for 11 weeks before taking its winter recess, followed by three weeks until Scott Brown won Kennedy's seat in the Massachusetts special election.

So that means Democrats had an effective filibuster-proof majority for about 14 weeks. Did they squander it? I guess you can make that case, but there's a very limited amount you can do in the Senate in 14 weeks. Given the reality of what it takes to move legislation through committee and onto the floor (keeping in mind that the filibuster isn't the minority party's only way to slow things down), I think you might make the case, at most, that a single additional piece of legislation could have been forced through during that period. But probably not much more than that. Democrats basically had a filibuster-proof majority for about three months. That's just not very long.

Killing the Filibuster

Ezra Klein notes that the American Constitution Society, the Sierra Club, Common Cause and the Communications Workers of America are holding a conference call today to highlight filibuster abuse:

One of the questions I've posed occasionally on this blog is whether various organized constituencies will eventually recognize that their agenda isn't being stalled because specific senators aren't convinced of the merits of their bills, but because the filibuster makes it extremely difficult to pass anything. If immigration groups, environmental advocates, labor unions, business lobbies, pro-nuclear power coalitions and so on began pooling some of their resources and relationships to work on Senate rules reform, that would be a big deal. And yesterday brought evidence that it's beginning to happen.

Beginning, maybe, but probably not going anywhere. My guess is that this kind of thing will only make a difference if conservative groups join in, and they'll only join in if they think their goals are being impeded by the filibuster. So here's the question: are there any important conservative goals that could probably muster 51 votes but not 60 in the Senate? Given the size of the current Democratic majority, probably none at the moment, but how about in January? If you can think of any, the groups who are behind them are the ones who might make good political allies.

Of course, teaming up with these groups (if they exist) would really drive home the fact that filibuster reform is a two-way street. Liberals might get their way more often on some things, but they'd also lose more often on other things. It's easy to say you're willing to take that chance, but I wonder how many liberals would change their minds if they were confronted with some very specific examples of just what conservatives could do with a 50-vote Senate?

Healthcare: Where the Money Goes

Why does healthcare cost so much in the U.S.? Well, we typically rely less on hospital care and more on outpatient care than most countries, so you might expect that we pay less for hospital care and more for outpatient care. But you'd only be half right. Even though we use less hospital care we still pay more for it than most countries. And since we use more outpatient care we pay a lot more for it:

The fact that we’re spending so much on outpatient care isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Same day surgery does cost less in general that longer inpatient stays. But it’s undeniable that the incentives in the system to financially reward quicker and less invasive procedures have increased their use. The financial rewards are much more for outpatient than inpatient care, and the fee-for-service mechanisms of the US encourage the use of more care.

....So here’s our first bit of depressing news. The single biggest contributor to the money we’re spending that’s “extra” is for medical care. It’s not a company or a crook. It’s for actual stuff that we seem to value. I will get into some of the specifics of this in future posts, but the bottom line is that when we talk about cutting spending, we will need to talk about reducing this amount. Especially since, if we were spending so much on care, we should expect to see impressive returns in quality (which we don’t).

The introduction to Aaron's series on the cost of medical care is here, including links to each post in the series. It'll be finished up on October 1.

Closing the Achievement Gap

David Kirp notes today that the academic achievement gap is widest among African American males. Better preschool can help, but it doesn't do any good unless it's followed up with plenty of other things:

What does work? Reducing class size to 14 or 15 students, a large-scale Tennessee experiment demonstrated, can generate big academic gains in the long run. Focusing on reading is also smart practice....Keeping schools open from dawn to dusk, six days a week — offering youngsters a raft of medical, social and psychological supports, academic help, sports and activities — also has a demonstrable effect on academics.... Carefully scrutinized mentoring programs like Big Brothers or Friends of the Children, which keeps mentors involved in the lives of the hardest-to-reach youngsters from kindergarten through high school, have been proven to rewrite life-scripts for such children, including African American males.

....Changing students' attitudes about the value of hard work also makes a difference. A study of black eighth-graders found that students' self-discipline was twice as good a predictor of grades as IQ. Charter schools, like those run by Green Dot and KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program), that emphasize character-building have narrowed the achievement gap for adolescent black males. At one Green Dot school in L.A., 68% of African American male students graduated in four years, while at a nearby public high school, just 3% graduated on time.

Of course, all of these things cost money. And who's willing to spend money these days on nonsense like this? Overseas wars and tax cuts for the rich are surely much better uses of our resources.

Quick Hits

A few miscellaneous late-night hits:

  • Mark Kleiman on a new bit of Heritage Foundation claptrap on drug policy: "What’s really scary is that the people running Heritage think they can produce this kind of crap and get away with it. It wouldn’t have been hard to run a draft report past any of a dozen actual experts hostile to cannabis legalization and have them spot the howlers."

  • Josh Gerstein and Scott Wong on the spectacle of lefties blaming lefties because the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell didn't get a single Republican vote: "The high-profile collapse of what would have been a landmark bill triggered a round of second-guessing and recriminations from repeal proponents. Their main targets: President Barack Obama, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), and leaders of gay rights organizations who have helped set strategy for repeal efforts."

  • Howard Kurtz on why NYT economics reporter Peter Goodman is jumping ship for the Huffington Post: " 'With the dysfunctional political system, old conventional notions of fairness make it hard to tell readers directly what's going on. This is a chance for me to explore solutions in my economic reporting.'....While he was happy at the newspaper, he says, he found he was engaged in 'almost a process of laundering my own views, through the tried-and-true technique of dinging someone at some think tank to say what you want to tell the reader.' "

  • Nick Anderson on a new study showing that paying teachers bonuses doesn't magically turn them into better teachers: "The study suggests that teachers already were working so hard that the lure of extra money failed to induce them to intensify their effort or change methods of instruction....On the whole, researchers found no significant difference between the results from classes led by teachers who received bonuses and those led by teachers who did not."

  • Peter Baker on the West Wing sniping over Afghanistan revealed in Bob Woodward's latest book: "Although the internal divisions described have become public, the book suggests that they were even more intense and disparate than previously known and offers new details. Mr. Biden called Mr. Holbrooke 'the most egotistical bastard I’ve ever met.' A variety of administration officials expressed scorn for James L. Jones, the retired Marine general who is national security adviser, while he referred to some of the president’s other aides as 'the water bugs' or 'the Politburo.'....Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates worried that General Jones would be succeeded by his deputy, Thomas E. Donilon, who would be a 'disaster.'...Gen. David H. Petraeus, who was overall commander for the Middle East until becoming the Afghanistan commander this summer, told a senior aide that he disliked talking with David M. Axelrod, the president’s senior adviser, because he was 'a complete spin doctor.' General Petraeus was effectively banned by the administration from the Sunday talk shows but worked private channels with Congress and the news media."

  • Paloma Esquivel on today's arrest of the administrators and councilmembers of the city of Bell who had been covertly paying each other millions of dollars for the past decade: "Among residents, many of whom rose up in angry protest amid revelations about a huge salary and loan scandal, there was a sense of celebration and relief....They were ebullient, shouting 'si, se pudo!' (yes, we did!) amid cheers. One man used a bullhorn to broadcast the Queen song 'Another One Bites the Dust.' Another held up a cardboard sign with illustrations of City Council members looking like movie mobsters in dark overcoats and fedoras. 'Stealing us blind since day one!' it read."