Archive for the ‘Election 2008’ Category

The Unhinged Anger on the Right Leads to An Ill-Advised and Unhedged Bet Against Reform.

Monday, March 22nd, 2010

There are 2 broad lessons to take from last night:

1. Unhinged Anger Makes For Great Ratings.

Hell no!” John Boehner frothed, spittle flying as he cursed on the floor of Congress yesterday.

“This health care bill will ruin our country. It’s time to stop it…We’re about 24 hours from Armageddon,” Boehner had claimed earlier.

Baby killer!” an as yet-unnamed Republican congressman screamed at pro-life Democrat Bart Stupak on Sunday.

Nigger!” a chorus of protesters chanted to Rep. John Lewis, who also heard such things while being beaten nearly to death fighting for civil rights in the 1960s on Saturday.

Faggot!” screeched other protesters at Barney Frank that same day.

Just a few days earlier, a disturbing video recorded a man barely able to walk due to Parkinson’s disease being mocked and ridiculed by anti-health care Tea Party protesters.

A short time before that, a conservative millionaire was promising guns to “patriots” concerned about “what was coming.”

This overheated Manichean good-vs-evil rhetoric in which slight changes in wording transform you from a pro-lifer to a “baby-killer,” in which subsidies for the uninsured constitute a “government takeover,” or in which America is about to be overrun by destroyed yet again eventually must discredit it’s purveyors. At least, it must decrease in its effect over time.

Common sense has taught people that “when there’s smoke, there’s fire.” And Republican operatives epitomized by Karl Rove have taken advantage of this. Top-line Republican operatives have adopted with more vigor than the left ever did the tactics of the radical New Left of the 1960s: from attacks on the legitimacy of political institutions (from the CBO – which Rove accused of Madoff-style accounting this weekend- to the Senate Parliamentarian to Congress to the Courts to the media to presidency) to the maxim that the “personal is political.” Unlike the New Left, they have virtually no agenda but to hold onto power and to, having lost it due to incompetence, tarnish the other side enough to get it back. Their hysteric charges represent the triumph of moral relativism. Their escalating outrage is an attempt to fool the American people.

This is how the rage has been created over a bill whose provisions are broadly popular and that is based on a plan offered by Republicans a generation earlier. David Frum cogently explained last night how even those Republicans “who knew better” were driven to bend before this unhinged anger that led the Republican Party to take an unhedged bet against reform, how it provoked them to declare this fight a make-or-break fight, and to take out all stops to their opposition, even though they stood little chance of succeeding:

There were leaders who knew better, who would have liked to deal. But they were trapped. Conservative talkers on Fox and talk radio had whipped the Republican voting base into such a frenzy that deal-making was rendered impossible. How do you negotiate with somebody who wants to murder your grandmother? Or – more exactly – with somebody whom your voters have been persuaded to believe wants to murder their grandmother?

…Yes [such talk] mobilizes supporters – but by mobilizing them with hysterical accusations and pseudo-information, overheated talk has made it impossible for representatives to represent and elected leaders to lead. The real leaders are on TV and radio, and they have very different imperatives from people in government. Talk radio thrives on confrontation and recrimination. When Rush Limbaugh said that he wanted President Obama to fail, he was intelligently explaining his own interests. What he omitted to say – but what is equally true – is that he also wants Republicans to fail. If Republicans succeed – if they govern successfully in office and negotiate attractive compromises out of office – Rush’s listeners get less angry. And if they are less angry, they listen to the radio less, and hear fewer ads for Sleepnumber beds.

That’s point #1: Cynical politicos out for short-term partisan gain and entertainers trying to get ratings foment unhinged anger to push their party to make a suicidal unhinged bet against reform.

Point #2. This Was Waterloo.

The Republican Party made a huge wager that they could block health care reform, and lost. Senator Jim DeMint rather infamously declared in a secret call to anti-reform advocates:

If we’re able to stop Obama on this it will be his Waterloo. It will break him.

Newt Gingrich echoed this point:

This could be the bill that drags his whole presidency down and they look back on it and suddenly the whole thing is unraveled.

Ralph Reed wrote in an email last week:

Our goal: To shock Congress into abandoning Obamacare (which will also effectively end the Obama Presidency and save freedom in America).

That was their game plan, their goal. They wanted a repeat of 1994. Their strategy in opposing the bill presumed it would never be able to pass. They escalated the rhetoric to insane levels. The less hysterical merely called it the “government takeover of 1/6th of the economy.” Bent on manipulating public opinion, the more cynical asked “innocent” questions:

Will America become another failed Cuba-style Socialist state? [Source.]

Do you think your political affiliation might eventually play into the decision on whether you get the life-saving medical treatment you need? [Source.]

A nation of Terri Schiavos with a National Euthanasia Bill? [Source.]

The more hysterical began to panic about legislation containing death panels, killing grandma, forcing government-mandated abortion, euthanasia, and reparations for slavery, authorizing government jackboots invading your home to take your children for socialist indoctrination, and overall, destroying America as we know it unless we arm ourselves and “prepare for what is coming.”

As the American people find out the answer to all of these questions is a resounding, “No!” – as they find out that the claims were made to monger fear for partisan gain – and that the bill that a plurality of people oppose contains mainly provisions that most people support – as the reality of this reform sinks in, the Republican Party will lose traction. As David Sanger quoted David Axelrod in the New York Times:

“This only worked well for the Republican Party if it failed to pass,” David Axelrod, one of the president’s closest political advisers, said at the White House as he watched the vote count for the final bill reach 219 in favor. “They wanted to run against a caricature of it rather than the real bill. Now let them tell a child with a pre-existing condition, ‘We don’t think you should be covered.’”

Now that the bill has been passed, we can focus on whether the health care plan’s tinkering with our dysfunctional system is making things better or not – as Ross Douthat says. And we can focus on the 10 things health care legislation will do right away. Obama can make his case for what he is doing (again to Sanger): “to sell the government’s oversight role over doctors and insurance companies the way he is trying to sell financial regulation: as a leveling of the playing field, in favor of consumers.” The passage of the bill re-shapes the coverage from “what could happen” to “what it is doing.” And the Democrats are more comfortable with that argument. Perhaps most frightening of all for Republicans, if this bill accomplishes what its supporters claim it will, it will re-shape the political landscape – as Bill Kristol explained in warning Republicans against cooperating in 1994:

It will revive the reputation of the party that spends and regulates, the Democrats, as the generous protector of middle-class interests. And it will at the same time strike a punishing blow against Republican claims to defend the middle-class by restraining the growth of government.

This won’t necessarily benefit the Democrats. Republicans don’t need to keep doubling down on their anti-government rhetoric; but for the present, it seems they will.

Today, the most profound effect though is a different one. By passing this bill, Obama has proved he has yet again broken the backs of the idiocrats who threw every rhetorical, legislative, and political obstacle at him. He has showed the patience and passion which won him the presidency can be translated into presidential achievements. The bill only tinkers. It isn’t dramatic reform. But it’s core accomplishment is dramatic: a change to our core social bargain; as explained by James Fallows:

[T]he significance of the vote is moving the United States FROM a system in which people can assume they will have health coverage IF they are old enough (Medicare), poor enough (Medicaid), fortunate enough (working for an employer that offers coverage, or able themselves to bear expenses), or in some other way specially positioned (veterans; elected officials)… TOWARD a system in which people can assume they will have health-care coverage.

This is an historic achievement. It is a moral one, and it is, counter intuitively, an important step towards controlling societal spending on health care.

[Image not subject to copyright.]

What Would Republican Health Care Reform Look Like?

Wednesday, November 4th, 2009

Edit: I see a few people have linked to me since Obama’s little debate with the House Republicans in which he backed up the point I’m making here, that his health care plan is:

similar to what many Republicans proposed to Bill Clinton when he was doing his debate on health care.

That’s the point I was making with this post as well. But some people have apparently taken this post as some sort of evidence of Obama’s nefariousness – as proof that he’s selling out. pm317 wrote on Hillaryis44 that people should, “Tell your bluest of blue friends who are still supporting Obama to read this little piece…” I think they should read this piece – but it stinks of partisanship to presume any Republican suggestion is wrong.

This piece points out that Obama has adopted much of the Republican framework for dealing with health care – picking up on the work of liberals such as Jacob Hacker and Peter Orszag. This framework was broadly endorsed by John Edwards, and then Hillary Clinton, and then Barack Obama during the campaign. The plan Obama is pushing attempts to combine the best elements of the conservative Republican plans with the goals and certain important elements of liberal alternatives. As a liberal, I acknowledge that this plan is modest – tinkering even – but this is its strength rather than weakness.

———————-

Yesterday, the Republicans released their health care plan. However, as Ezra Klein points out it isn’t an actual plan to fix health care as much as a plan to get people to stop asking them what their plan is:

The bill is framed in terms of Republican attacks on the Democratic bill, not in terms of its own aims or methods. Which is fine, and to be expected. If I were a Republican, I wouldn’t spend my time crafting a health-care reform plan, either. Republicans don’t have the votes to pass a bill, and they know it.

So what is the Republican approach to health care reform?

In an interview with the German weekly Der Spiegel, Charles Krauthammer gives a typical response, lecturing Obama:

On health care, the reason he’s had such resistance is because he promised reform, not a radical remaking of the whole system.

Though this is a common claim by right wingers attacking Obama, it clearly isn’t true. Obama’s health reforms take great pains to preserve the current system – and is indeed based largely on two conservative attempts to reform health care in the past. The hope of liberals is that this reform could establish a structure: health insurance market with a public option, that could gradually be opened up to the rest of the population if it was successful. But that isn’t what we’re talking about now.

Given that his criticism of Obama’s health care position is that it is “a radical remaking of the whole system,” you would think Krauthammer would offer a few conservative measures. But if that is what you think, then you have misunderstood the right wing. Krauthammer proposes to entirely tear down the current system: “It is absolutely crazy that in America employees receive health insurance from their employers,” he says, and proposes we gut this system by eliminating the tax break for health insurance and eliminate the prohibition on interstate insurance (which would effectively strip any regulation from insurance companies as the state with the least regulation could attract these companies in a race to the bottom…) By any standard, and whether you agree with them or not, these are radical measures that would completely remake our system of health insurance – and they were also the two cornerstones of the proposal by the McCain campaign.

What Krauthammer either doesn’t know or attempts to elide is that Obama’s health care plan has two prominent historical predecessors: Richard Nixon’s proposal in 1974 and the Dole-Chafee bill sponsored by the Republicans as an alternative to Bill Clinton’s approach in 1993. If you want to figure out what Republican health care reform might be, this is where to look. One of the key things to realize when looking at these plans is that we currently have a hybrid system: with the elderly, veterans, and the poor receiving government-provided health insurance; many of the employed receiving employer-provided health insurance; and those left out either without health insurance or using the much more expensive and less stable individual health insurance market.

1974: Nixon’s Plan

At the crest of the liberal era, Richard Nixon attempted to reform health care. He called his plan CHIP, or Comprehensive Health Insurance Plan, and its goal was to solidify the hybrid system that existed. He proposed expanding eligibility for Medicaid, expanding Medicare to cover prescription drugs, subsidizing the poor to get insurance, incentivizing employers to provide health insurance, and eliminating discrimination on the basis of preexisting conditions.

Specifically, Nixon’s plan included:

  • A form of the Indepedent Medicare Advisory Council called the Professional Standards Review Organization, both being independent technocratic bodies composed primarily of doctors which would be charged with ensuring quality care while “helping to bring about significant savings in heath costs,” to use Nixon’s phrase. (Under Obama, this group would be significantly checked by Congress, and Obama has specified one way that excess treatments could be minimized – by compiling medical knowledge about best practices into a non-binding database.)
  • A commitment that health insurance would “cost no American more than he can afford to pay,” in Nixon’s words, which specifically meant subsidizing health insurance for the poor who could not afford it and were not provided it through their employers.
  • A commitment to build “on the strength and diversity of our existing public and private systems of health financing” and to harmonize “them into an overall system,” as Nixon said.
  • The banning of discrimination on the basis of preexisting conditions.
  • The standardization of a basic level of health insurance including setting maximim out of pocket costs per year and setting a minimum level of what would be covered.
  • A federally issued “Health-card” which would be “similar to a credit car” and “be honored by hospitals, nursing homes, emergency rooms, doctors and clinics across the county” and would include “identity information on blood type and sensitivity to particular drugs.” (Obama’s plan contains no such thing, probably to avoid concerns of federal overreach and the hysteria which accompanies talk of a national identification card.)

One of the great regrets of Ted Kennedy’s life was that he did not take the deal Nixon offered him on health care. It’s also noteworthy that Nixon at this point was insistent on strengthening the employer-provided health insurance system and the government-provided health insurance system. He also pushed the idea of HMOs which Bill Clinton’s plan was later demonized for encouraging as well.

1993: The Dole-Chafee Bill

In 1993, some Republicans believed they needed to come up with an alternative to Bill Clinton’s health care plan (in contrast to the, “Just Say No” approach advocated by Will Kristol at the time, and again today) – with 20 Republican Senators eventually introducing to great fanfare the Dole-Chafee bill. This bill was flawed and politically impossible to get through Congress given the many interests it offended – from labor to the elderly to big corporations. This was because it’s main goal was to undermine the employer-provided health insurance system and to a lesser degree the government-provided health insurance system. The Republicans saw these as distancing individuals from the cost of their health care decisions and thus as two of the main drivers of increasing costs – though they did not acknowledge or attempt to fix any of the problems which made the individual health insurance market untenable for most. This bill included:

  • An individual mandate enforced by a penalty imposed on those who did not comply.
  • A government voucher to purchase health insurance for individuals to up to 240% of the poverty line. (Which is more generous than the Senate Finance bill which only offered subsidies for families up to 200% of the poverty line.)
  • A cap on how much health insurance could be deducted as a tax credit (similar to what the Senate Finance Committee proposed recently, which Republicans denounced as raising taxes.)
  • The removal of the tax credit for all private health insurance plans that did not provide a “federally guaranteed package of health care benefits.” (Which is more radical than anything Obama is proposing – and a greater reach of the government into the private sector.)
  • The elimination of discrimination on the basis of preexisting conditions.
  • Financing through cuts in Medicare Part B and the limits in tax credits discussed above.

“Obamacare”

Compare the above to the plans now circulating in Congress and backed by Obama.

They have many of the same goals:

  • reducing the growth of health care spending;
  • eliminating the holes in our insurance system and insuring the uninsured;
  • eliminating abuses by the health insurance industry.

They have some similar mechanisms to achieve these goals:

  • regulation of health insurance industry;
  • individual mandate;
  • subsidies for those who cannot afford insurance;
  • technocratic panels.

The health care reforms being proposed today are based on the same framework as the two Republican plans of the past with one main exception: they provide a mechanism to allow the individual market to work more effectively. The health care reforms today attempt to preserve the current system – which is deteriorating year by year as more and more people are priced out of health insurance – while alleviating the worst problems and providing a separate and regulated market in which individuals could choose between different health insurance models.

While both the Nixon and Dole-Chafee bills sought to change the health insurance industry through pure government regulation and intervention. The Democratic proposal working its way through Congress now adds two elements – one from the left and one from the right. They propose creating a Health Insurance Exchange – a market for health insurance. On this exchange, one could choose a publicly-run insurance plan.

The model the Democrats are working on now clearly owes a great deal to these two Republican attempts at health care reform. It’s a shame that Republicans have now taken to demonizing Obama’s plan on many of the very grounds that would necessarily be at the core of an actual conservative attempt to tackle health care.

[Image by Civil Rights licensed under Creative Commons.]

Why Do Republicans Oppose Net Neutrality?

Friday, October 23rd, 2009

The motto of the Republican Party these days seems to be this: If you’re not getting traction opposing something the Obama administration is doing, then make shit up and oppose that.

This was the approach to health care reform and it’s the approach to cap-and-trade legislation (which had been the Republican, market-based approach to dealing with climate change until Democrats came on board.)  The Republican and right wing opposition to net neutrality provides yet another example of this. It’s not that there are no legitimate grounds to oppose these and other Obama administration positions – libertarians and paleoconservatives have found many – it’s just that the Republicans and right wing media figures opposing it choose instead to pretend that what is being proposed is some fantastical evil scheme.

In this case, they are pretending that net neutrality is (a) a radical change rather than a preservation of the internet as it is; and (b) would create an “internet czar” who would “police content” and force conservative bloggers and website owners to put liberal content on their websites. This is not even close to being true!

Network neutrality is an essentially conservative principle – meaning that it seeks to preserve a core principle of the status quo. (SavetheInternet – a pro-net neutrality group – has a good FAQ page if you’re unfamiliar.) Internet service providers (the companies you pay to be able to get onto the internet) in seeking to find new ways to make even more money want to not only charge you to get onto the internet, but to charge companies with websites to be able to reach you (or to be able to reach you quicker.) Doing this would radically undermine the internet as it is and could easily lead to the entrenchment of any big company willing to pay to best its opponents rather than the company with the best idea.

Net neutrality was a fairly uncontroversial idea as late as 2006 – attracting broad bipartisan support in Congress. A libertarian/conservative group – the Internet Freedom Coalition – did oppose it – on the theory that the internet already was regulated enough and no further laws were needed; but the Republican-controlled House Judiciary Committee still passed the 2006 net neutrality bill 20 votes to 13.

Last summer though, things began to change. I wrote a piece about how money had begun to flow into John McCain’s campaign as well as other Republicans as the cable companies and other opponents of net neutrality began to try to gin up some opposition. McCain himself seemed confused though his campaign had issued a definitive statement saying he was against it (coincidentally right around the time he started to get money from net neutrality opponents.) McCain said in an interview to Brian Lehrer after this statement that he went “back and forth on the issue.” In the interview, he seemed genuinely confused as to what the issue even was.

But as the money began to go to various Republican candidates, and as progressives and liberals began to defend net neutrality, the issue became polarized. Republican and former FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell, claimed that net neutrality could lead to the regulation of political speech on the internet, calling it a ‘Fairness Doctrine for the Internet,’ which is clearly a Conservative Strawman, as anyone who bothered to do any research about what the meaning of net neutrality was would quickly find out. Even the Internet Freedom Coalition declines to make this exaggerated claim.

Now, the issue has broken into the news again as the FCC is considering writing rules officially adopting net neutrality rather than invoking it on a case by case basis as it has in the past. (Unfortunately, I’m a bit unclear on the distinction being made between guidelines relied upon by the FCC and rules enforced by the FCC.)

And of course, Republicans, having been duly bought and paid for, are now opponents of net neutrality – as rather than conservatively seeking to preserve the structure of the internet, they seek to allow big corporations the freedom to undermine it in any way they find profitable. John McCain who was so confused by this issue just last year now is a leading opponent, introducing a bill this week to prohibit the FCC from protecting net neutrality or any of the other basic principles underlying the internet as it exists now. Marsha Blackburn, a House Republican, has officially taken on the role of the Sarah Palin for the net neutrality debate, as she pushes the limits of public dialogue by demagoguing net neutrality and regurgitating the wacky talking point that net neutrality is the “Fairness Doctrine for the Internet.”

Perhaps in this storyline you can see what it takes to unhinge the public debate from reality: an interest group with money to burn to concentrate the benefits of government policy and disperse the costs.

[Image by -eko- licensed under Creative Commons.]

Must-Reads of Last Week: Data Warfare, Gay Rights, McCaughey, Summers, and Yankee Tickets

Tuesday, October 13th, 2009

Data Warfare. Marc Ambinder got hold of Catalist’s after-action report on the 2008 elections – describing how effective the Democrats were in pushing their voters to vote. According to the report, the combination of the effectiveness of data targeting and the pull of Obama’s candidacy made the difference in at least four states: Ohio, Florida, Indiana in North Carolina.

Gay Rights. Andrew Sullivan takes on the Weekly Standard‘s arguments in favor of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and continues his crusade to push the gay rights movement to agitate for change instead of simple accepting leaders who make the right noises. He continued over the weekend:

The president wasn’t vilified on the streets on Sunday as he has been recently. We are not attacking the president; we are simply demanding he do what he promised to do and supporting the troops who do not have the luxury of deciding to wait before they risk their lives for us.

We know it isn’t easy; but the Democrats need to know we weren’t kidding. You cannot summon these forces and then ask them to leave the stage. We won’t.

Remember: we are the ones we’ve been waiting for. Not him, us.

A Professional Health-Care Policy Liar. Ezra Klein recommends: “Michelle Cottle’s take down of professional health-care policy liar Betsy McCaughey is deservedly vicious and unabashedly welcome.” The entire article is illuminating, but I want to point out Cottle’s nice summary of McCaughey’s brilliance at debate:

Ironically, her familiarity with the data, combined with her unrecognizable interpretation of it, makes it nearly impossible to combat McCaughey’s claims in a traditional debate. Her standard m.o. (as “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart recently experienced) is to greet each bit of contradictory evidence by insisting that her questioner is poorly informed and should take a closer look at paragraph X or footnote Z. When those sections don’t support her interpretation, she continues to throw out page numbers and footnotes until the mountain of data is so high as to obscure the fact that none of the numbers add up to what she has claimed.

But it is Klein, in recommending the article that gets at the heart of why McCaughey is so effective:

She’s among the best in the business at the Big Lie: not the dull claim that health-care reform will slightly increase the deficit or trim Medicare Advantage benefits, but the claim that it will result in Death Panels that decide the fate of the elderly, or a new model of medical ethics in which the lives of the old are sacrificed for the good of the young, or a government agency that will review the actions of every doctor. McCaughey isn’t just a liar. She’s anexciting liar.

Summers. Ryan Lizza profiles Larry Summers for the New Yorker. Read the piece. This excerpt isn’t typical of the approach of the Obama team that the article describes, but it touches on something I plan on picking up later:

Summers opened with a tone of skepticism: The future of activist government was at stake, he warned. If Obama’s programs wasted money, they would discredit progressivism itself. “I would have guessed that bailing out big banks was going to be unpopular, and bailing out real companies where people work was going to be popular,” he said. “But I was wrong. They were both unpopular. There’s a lot of suspicion around. Why this business but not that business? Is this industrial policy? Is this socialism? Why is the government moving in?”

Noblesse oblige. Wright Thompson for ESPN explains the reason for the exorbitant prices and examines their affect on the loyalty of longtime fans. The article provides a close-up view of the  of the corrosive effect of the concentration of wealth and Wall Street culture – and how it destroys what the very things it enriches.

Why I Despise Sarah Palin

Tuesday, July 14th, 2009

One of my friends asked me this question. Actually, he accused me of despising her (which I admit to) and postulated that feminists and liberals hate her so much because she stands for “a sort of  ‘reincarnation’ of the traditional post-war female that scares the bejesus out of liberals for a variety of reasons.”

I can’t speak for every liberal, or every progressive, or every feminist – but I can speak for myself – and I tell you, it is not Palin’s  status as a reincarnation of the traditional post-war female (a description which I incidentally don’t find that fitting) that leads me to despise her. It is that she found herself to be a very capable demagogue. Frank Rich in The New York Times explained it well this Sunday:

The essence of Palinism is emotional, not ideological… The real wave she’s riding is a loud, resonant surge of resentment and victimization that’s larger than issues like abortion and gay civil rights.

Palin constantly positions herself as a victim of the conspiracies of the elite. As interviewers lob her softball after softball, she points out the few outliers and claims she is a victim of a giant conspiracy. As a local blogger files a frivolous ethics complaint, Palin claims she is being targeted for persecution by Rahm Emanuel and Barack Obama. A similar logic of collective victomhood makes its way into every speech she gives; she constantly sets up a dynamic of “us” against “them” – the “Joe Sixpacks” versus “the Hollywood/NY elite” and the “real Americans” against those “who [see] America…as being so imperfect…that [they are] palling around with terrorists [who]…target their own country.” What this accomplishes is what Cass Sunstein in the Spectator describes as the dyanmic of self-reinforcing moral outrage:

Political extremism is often a product of group polarisation and social segregation is a useful tool for producing polarisation. In fact, a good way to create an extremist group, or a cult of any kind, is to separate members from the rest of society. The separation can occur physically or psychologically, by creating a sense of suspicion about non-members. With such separation, the information and views of those outside the group can be discredited, and hence nothing will disturb the process of polarisation as group members continue to talk.

Sunstein does not link this to Palin – but it is clear that she is playing with this exact dynamic. This stands in stark contrast to John McCain who, to his credit, realized how dangerous this dynamic was and tried to calm his crowds down; and it stands in contrast to Barack Obama who has deliberately taken an approach that minimizes this dynamic of escalating moral outrage – challenging his audiences when they seem to be dehumanizing the other side. Palin though escalated her rhetoric. Her crowds became more extreme – in the way that like-minded groups do, especially when united against a nefarious and dehumanized “them.”

Why do I despise Sarah Palin? Because she is a demagogue, and more important, because she is an effective one.

(more…)

Palin the Performer

Thursday, April 23rd, 2009

I was cleaning out my draft posts and came across this wonderful take on Sarah Palin by Sam Harris in Newsweek at the height of her appeal:

Here, finally, was a performer who—being maternal, wounded, righteous and sexy—could stride past the frontal cortex of every American and plant a three-inch heel directly on that limbic circuit that ceaselessly intones “God and country.” If anyone could make Christian theocracy smell like apple pie, Sarah Palin could…

For all my concern about Bush’s religious beliefs, and about his merely average grasp of terrestrial reality, I have never once thought that he was an over-the-brink, Rapture-ready extremist. Palin seems as though she might be the real McCoy. With the McCain team leading her around like a pet pony between now and Election Day, she can be expected to conceal her religious extremism until it is too late to do anything about it. Her supporters know that while she cannot afford to “talk the talk” between now and Nov. 4, if elected, she can be trusted to “walk the walk” until the Day of Judgment.

What is so unnerving about the candidacy of Sarah Palin is the degree to which she represents—and her supporters celebrate—the joyful marriage of confidence and ignorance. Watching her deny to Gibson that she had ever harbored the slightest doubt about her readiness to take command of the world’s only superpower, one got the feeling that Palin would gladly assume any responsibility on earth:

“Governor Palin, are you ready at this moment to perform surgery on this child’s brain?”

“Of course, Charlie. I have several boys of my own, and I’m an avid hunter.”

“But governor, this is neurosurgery, and you have no training as a surgeon of any kind.”

“That’s just the point, Charlie. The American people want change in how we make medical decisions in this country. And when faced with a challenge, you cannot blink…”

Looking Through Iseman’s Complaint Against The New York Times

Friday, January 2nd, 2009

Yesterday, Vicki Iseman – the lobbyist whose attentions may have had an undue influence on Senator McCain – filed a complaint in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Richmond Division against The New York Times Company, Bill Keller (editor of the Times), Dean Baqet (the Times‘s Washington editor), and the reporters over the allegedly defamatory story published in the Times on February 21, 2008. I’ve posted her complaint (PDF)  for your full perusal.

There are a few assertions in the piece which are questionable. One is that lobbyists have no personal relationships with the people they are lobbying:

The defamatory statements, express and implied, that Ms. Iseman exploited an alleged personal or social relationship with Senator McCain to seek favorable outcomes or improper influence on behalf of clients, are entirely false…Ms. Iseman’s relationship with Senator McCain was not different in kind from the cordial yet professional relationship that hundreds of lobbyists have with hundreds of members of Congress. [¶ 24]

Yet the job of a lobbyist does consist of using personal and social relationships with people of influence to push an agenda. The ISEA for one believes so – as it describes several tips on how to lobby successfully:

The most effective member-lobbyists are those who have developed a personal relationship with their legislators.

Jeff Kros, a legislative director in Arizona, describes why lobbying works in another how-to guide for lobbying:

Personal relationships take the anonymity out of the process.

Kurt Wise writing a scholarly piece analyzing the effect of interpersonal relationships on lobbying efforts suggests that many lobbyists consider these relationships to be “essential” to their success. It is precisely this fact – that to lobby means to use personal relationships and social skills to push an agenda – that has led an informal synonym of lobbyist to be “corporate whore.”

Iseman’s attorneys would be making a more truthful argument if they explained that if Iseman used her personal relationship to push her clients’ agenda, then that isn’t news – as such whoring is the essence of lobbying. The Complaint virtually acknowledges this in ¶27 as it almost concedes that most of the facts cited in the news article are actually true:

Setting aside the heavy emphasis on the allegedly inappropriate romantic relationship between Ms. Iseman and Senator McCain, the article contained no reporting that was new or newly newsworthy.

As the Complaint lists no complaints of the previous coverage – and in fact cites approvingly some of the coverage – it would seem that Iseman isn’t disputing these accounts of how she wooed McCain on behalf of her clients. The legal argument here is that – no one wants to see how politics is played, how influence is wielded, how sausages are made – but that doesn’t make any of the three newsworthy. It may be unsavory to describe all the perks McCain and other influentials are given by lobbyists – but it’s unfair to portray that as a news story, because it’s so common. I think this is one of the stronger points Iseman can make – but as it is demeaning to her profession, she wisely refrains from doing so.

If this piece seems a bit snarkier than usual, then it may be that I’m bitter at the numerous barbs directed against bloggers in the Complaint. For one, the Complaint calls Matt Drudge, the tabloid purveyor of right-wing trash and master of the political universe, a “blogger” and his website The Drudge Report, an “on-line blog” – despite the fact that neither meets any of the basic definitions of either word. Then in ¶42, the Complaint turns poetic – and implicitly defames all bloggers – with this passage:

As days and weeks went by, and the cruel gossip, whispers, blogs, rumors, confrontations, and innuendo about her continued, her despondency over the publication of the article and its impact on her life grew.

There are two issues of law at stake here aside from the basic facts which don’t seem as if they will be substantially disputed:

  • whether or not Vicki Iseman will be considered a private or public individual for the purposes of imposing a standard for defamation;
    (A public individual has a much higher standard to meet when alleging defamation; the public individual must prove “actual malice” on the part of the publisher of the controversial statement.)
  • whether a defense of the truth of every individual statement can hold up against what Iseman considers “defamation by insinuation” and “defamation by lack of complete context.”

Public versus Private

Iseman maintains that she must be considered a private rather than a public person as she “never sought to enter the arena of general public debate” (¶48). Of course, Iseman was attempting to influence the general public debate using her private relationships with public officials, making her actions of considerable interest to the public at large. But even further, it is my opinion that all people who are paid to consort with public officials – prostitutes, hookers, whores, lobbyists, and escorts -  should be considered public figures to the extent of their relationship with the public figure.This applies doubly to those who with “private” debate and use of their personal relationships attempt to affect the public debate rather than just serve as a “companion.” In other words, if Ashley Dupree‘s and Monica Lewinsky’s “companionship” with public figures can be mentioned in a news story, so can Vicki Iseman’s undisputed companionship. We can even call them “voluntary, limited-purpose public figures.”

Defamation by Insinuation

Iseman attempts to charge the Times with defamation based on “what was intentionally suggested and implied “between the lines” (¶16) of the news story. The Complaint later explains that the Times should be held responsible for “how the article was in fact received and understood by readers” (¶18). It strikes me that this is an incredibly slippery slope. The facts cited in the Times article aren’t substantially disputed in the Complaint – only the impression the article left on readers. As the Complaint tries to nail down a defamatory comment from the Times, you can see Iseman stretching, as in this example from ¶20:

The article then engaged in the classic phrasing of gossip and innuendo that two people are having an inappropriate romantic relationship, with the passage: “But in 1999 she began showing up so frequently in his offices and at campaign events that staff members took notice. One recalled asking,  “Why is she always around?” [my emphasis]

Notice that in explaining this specific, the Complaint tries to sidestep the issue it supposedly is trying to prove. While I’ll grant Iseman that the facts cited by the Times piece do suggest she was in an inappropriate romantic relationship with Senator McCain, that’s not the point she’s trying to make with this. Instead, she suggests that the Times is using “classic phrasing of gossip and innuendo” suggesting that they are using some form of commonly understood coded language to convey a clear meaning.  This neatly sidesteps the issue of whether or not the facts reported by the Times are true and tries to assert they are instead a form of code. The problem is that this isn’t a “classic phrasing” of any sort – and seems determined by the facts as understood by the Times reporters. The reporters may have been wrong in what they were implying, but I would think the truth of their statements should be a defense. If the Times reported there was smoke, and strongly insinuated there was a fire, but never stated so – and there was smoke – I don’t think they can be fairly faulted.

All this being said, Courts have recognized defamation by insinuation as a cause of action – although the focus in the jurisprudence has been what a passage was intended to convey rather than how it was “in fact received and understood by readers” as this Complaint discusses. As discussed in White v. Fraternal Order of Police:

[I]f a communication, viewed in its entire context, merely conveys materially true facts from which a defamatory inference can reasonably be drawn, the libel is not established. But if the communication, by the particular manner or language in which the true facts are conveyed, supplies additional, affirmative evidence suggesting that the defendant intends or endorses the defamatory inference, the communication will be deemed capable of bearing that meaning.

Iseman’s Complaint fails to make this argument, focusing instead on how it was received.

Defamation by Lack of Complete Context

The Complaint also argues that even if Iseman is considered a public figure, the Times was “deliberately and recklessly misleading” indicating “actual malice,” thus meeting the much higher standard of defamation required for a public figure, or a voluntary, limited-purpose public figure. Iseman alleges here that the Times demonstrates actual malice because it failed to place “the statements of the principal source for the article” “in truthful context” (¶44.) This seems to be a higher bar than defamation by insinuation – which considered unstated implications to be actual defamation. In ¶44, the Complaint alleges that a failure to provide an appropriate context for factual statements also consists of defamation. Under this standard, the McCain ad which deceptively uses video of Obama mocking the idea that he is “The One” without contextualizing it to demonstrate Obama’s intent could be considered defamation as well.

Using this extraordinarily high bar, Iseman states that even printing her denial of the unstated allegations didn’t negate entirely the impression readers might have based on the facts reported:

The article did print the fact that Ms. Iseman and Senator McCain had denied any romantic relationship or other inappropriate conduct. These denials, which most readers would understand as “obligatory,” and therefore precisely what Ms. Iseman and Senator McCain would be expected to say, did not negate the defamatory meanings that otherwise pervaded the article…(¶26)

Which again leads this Complaint to be blaming the Times for actions entirely out of it’s control.

Conclusion

Altogether, the Complaint is troubling in how it attempts to hold the Times to an unreasonable standard. If the Complaint’s legal arguments were accepted by a Court, it would have a substantially chilling effect on freedom of the press and free speech. If some magazine or newspaper reported that the President had signed off on a memorandum changing the definition of torture, and American military and paramilitary personnel subsequently tortured prisoners – this could be understood to imply that the President had responsibility for the torture, opening up the reporters and media sources to a possible defamation lawsuit.  But the Courts have enough established precedents in this area that I’m not worried yet. Clay Calvert, interviewed by The Wall Street Journal Law Blog, suggests that the case is unlikely to get to a jury and will probably be settled.

NB – I should give a shout-out to Matt Yglesias for what I think is his first time being cited in a Complaint in Federal Court (¶32) for this blog entry. Congrats Matt!

Also, I’m not trying to defend the Times story here. I tend to agree with Yglesias’s follow-ups to his original post cited in the Complaint. But I think the theme of the Times piece – the insight into McCain’s character that it revealed – stands up:

Even as he has vowed to hold himself to the highest ethical standards, his confidence in his own integrity has sometimes seemed to blind him to potentially embarrassing conflicts of interest.

(more…)

Obama Throws a Snowball

Friday, December 12th, 2008

From December 2007 before the Iowa caucuses made Barack Obama the front runner for the Democratic nomination.

(I found the photo here, but I’m not sure of it’s real provenance. Similar pictures were in the Boston Herald last December though.)

The Generation That Sucked

Monday, December 8th, 2008

With apologies to all those Baby Boomers I know – I, of course, don’t mean you.

There is something so very right about trashing the Baby Boom generation. Tom Friedman – a member of said generation – suggests a few names in his column on Sunday:

“The Greediest Generation?” “The Complacent Generation?” Or maybe: “The Subprime Generation: How My Parents Bailed Themselves Out for Their Excesses by Charging It All on My Visa Card.”

Barack Obama himself wrote in The Audacity of Hope:

In the back and forth between Clinton and Gingrich, and in the elections of 2000 and 2004, I sometimes felt as if I were watching the psychodrama of the baby boom generation — a tale rooted in old grudges and revenge plots hatched on a handful of college campuses long ago.

Perhaps this passage is what led Andrew Sullivan to describe Barack Obama’s candidacy (back when he was a long shot) as America’s only chance for a much needed truce in the long civil war fought by the Baby Boom generation:

…the most persuasive case for Obama has less to do with him than with the moment he is meeting. The moment has been a long time coming, and it is the result of a confluence of events, from one traumatizing war in Southeast Asia to another in the most fractious country in the Middle East. The legacy is a cultural climate that stultifies our politics and corrupts our discourse.

Obama’s candidacy in this sense is a potentially transformational one. Unlike any of the other candidates, he could take America—finally—past the debilitating, self-perpetuating family quarrel of the Baby Boom generation that has long engulfed all of us. So much has happened in America in the past seven years, let alone the past 40, that we can be forgiven for focusing on the present and the immediate future. But it is only when you take several large steps back into the long past that the full logic of an Obama presidency stares directly—and uncomfortably—at you.

At its best, the Obama candidacy is about ending a war—not so much the war in Iraq, which now has a mo­mentum that will propel the occupation into the next decade—but the war within America that has prevailed since Vietnam and that shows dangerous signs of intensifying, a nonviolent civil war that has crippled America at the very time the world needs it most. It is a war about war—and about culture and about religion and about race. And in that war, Obama—and Obama alone—offers the possibility of a truce.

The point of all of this is that the Baby Boom generation was quite terrible. While the “Greatest Generation” tackled a Great Depression and won a World War, and then came home and created an age of prosperity and the United Nations – and then, by the late 1950s and early 1960s, fought for and won civil rights, finally erasing the official discrimination against African Americans that had blighted America since it’s inception – the Baby Boomers – the children of the Greatest Generation – started an American civil war, focused initially on Vietnam, and then later on the role of government, on abortion, and on religion’s place in public life. While these are worthy issues to argue about, the culture war of the Baby Boomers kept them from tackling many of the urgent challenges of their day – from global warming to infrastructure deterioration to America’s place in the world. As the Baby Boomers entered adulthood, their national cohesion that was evident in the Greatest Generation dissolved into squabbles and then by 1968, into a virtual civil war.

Since the 1960s, America has failed to invest in our roads, our utilities, our energy infrastructure; America’s dependency on foreign oil was demonstrated in the 1970s, yet we did nothing and blamed it on Jimmy Carter’s bad leadership; at the same time, a radical brand of extremist Islam began to grow – and our government encouraged it, seeing it as a tool to use against the Soviet Union; some two decades ago, global warming was accepted as a fact by the greatest majority of scientists, yet we have failed to take any significant steps.

Instead, since the late 1960s, we have fought and re-fought the war over the war in Vietnam. What happened in the rice paddies and jungles of that nation are almost irrelevant to the culture war. What is remembered is where people stood while they were here. John Kerry served with distinction, but spoke against the war when he came back – forever putting him on the liberal side of the war. Dick Cheney got one deferment after another, avoiding serving at all – yet he was enthusiastic about the war as long as he himself wasn’t fighting, making him a conservative. John McCain was captured and came home a hero and George W. Bush served stateside in a cushy National Guard unit for the sons and daughters of those politicians influential enough to prevent their children from serving – yet both are equally conservative because they both were annoyed at the hippies protesting. Barack Obama was only a boy, but as Sarah Palin never failed to mention, he served on a charitable board with someone who decided to fight an insurgency against the American government to oppose the war – which by association made Obama a far-left radical. Much less important than what these Baby Boomers actually did is how they felt about the war.

It is possible to determine with a great degree of accuracy whether a Baby Boomer is a Democrat or Republican simply by asking their position on a war that ended almost forty years ago. Those who protested the war and stood against it took one side in the culture war; those who supported the war took the other side. As a rule, the Democrats – Kerry, Clinton, Gore – were against the war. The Republicans – Bush, McCain, Cheney – were for it. (This was despite the fact that it was “the best and the brightest” under Democrats John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson who started the war.)

The obvious problem is that these divisions are barely relevant anymore.

The Baby Boomers pissed away the prosperity their parents bequeathed to them and squandered the opportunities presented to them – and now are busy using their children’s future earnings (our future earnings) to buy their way out of the mess they have created. They avoided the challenges of their times and found people to blame. They focused on OJ Simpson, Britney Spears, Madonna, and Monica Lewinsky – on abortion, Vietnam, gays, and religion – and not on global warming, on campaign finance, on the corruption of our political process, on an overleveraged economy.

After decades of avoiding systematic problems – as the solutions became embroiled in the ongoing culture war – we now must face them. With two wars in the Mid-East, a failing world economy, a growing threat of catastrophic terrorism, and whatever else may come our way, procrastination is impossible. Now it’s time for us to try to salvage this wreck.

That’s what the 2008 election was really about. And that’s our challenge. It remains to be seen if we’re up to it.

A sex symbol for every man who reads without moving his lips

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2008

Maureen Dowd has a pleasant piece in January’s Vanity Fair profiling Tina Fey. Dowd tells the little-known story of how Tina Fey got the scar on the side of her face (she was randomly assaulted by a stranger with a knife who slashed her when she was 5) and the more well-known story of Fey’s transformation into “the sex symbol for every man who reads without moving his lips” in Michael Specter’s phrase.