Archive for the ‘McCain’ Category

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.]

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…)

The Scowcroft Conspiracy

Thursday, November 13th, 2008

Not quite a conspiracy – but Joshua Micah Marshall just reported on the final piece of the puzzle I seem to have been missing  that helps explain:

  • the endorsement of Obama by Colin Powell;
  • the constant chatter about keeping Bob Gates on as Defense Secretary since at least September; and
  • the tacit support of Obama by Chuck Hagel – from his criticisms of McCain during the election to his accompanying Obama on his European tour during the campaign.

The final piece being – Brent Scowcroft (h/t Andrew Sullivan), the former National Security Advisor under Presidents Gerald Ford and George H. W. Bush and a former Lieutenant General in the Air Force, and a guy so personally close to George H. W. Bush that he co-wrote Bush’s memoirs with him.

Hagel, Powell, and Gates all have been close allies of Scowcroft, especially in fighting against neo-conservatives in the George W. Bush administration. And he has apparently been working behind-the-scenes with Obama and his foreign policy team since the summer at latest.

Indeed, the roots of this defection of foreign policy realist Republicans to the Obama camp can probably be seen in this April 2008 article in the New York Times in which Lawrence Eagleburger, of the realist camp himself, describes a battle going on for McCain’s “soul” between the realist and neoconservative Republican foreign policy camps. By the summer, it became pretty clear which side had won that battle – as McCain embraced one neoconservative position after another and surrogates claimed he wanted to “kill the United Nations.”

By the summer, Scowcroft had begun to unofficially advise the Obama campaign; there was talk of Bob Gates staying on at Defense; Senator Hagel began to criticize McCain while praising Obama; and Powell decided to endorse Obama publicly.

Obama & Trade

Thursday, November 13th, 2008

I’ve heard from a few people that there is a growing concern that Obama is anti-free-trade.

This concern has a basis in Obama’s record – mainly from his rhetoric in Ohio during the primary fight with Hillary Clinton and to some extent the fact that he is a Democrat and needed the support of the labor unions. But to a large degree the exaggerated fears of many businessmen comes from comments made by the Republicans during the campaign – as John McCain’s campaign was first (ridiculously) calling Obama “the most protectionist candidate that the Democratic Party has ever fielded” before his campaign went on to call Obama a supporter of comprehensive sex education for kindergartner, a Marxist, a socialist, and a friend to terrorists.

This has led to a series of conflicting impressions of Obama and his position on trade – from statements during the Ohio campaign that “we can’t keep passing unfair trade deals like NAFTA that put special interests over workers’ interests” to his later point – when asked about his rhetoric about NAFTA during the Ohio campaign that, “Sometimes during campaigns the rhetoric gets overheated and amplified.” Indeed – despite the appeal of populist protectionist rhetoric (some 60% of Americans think free trade and NAFTA have been bad for people like them), Obama chose to attack protectionism in the general campaign: “[n]ot only is it impossible to turn back the tide of globalization, but efforts to do so can make us worse off.” At least in part, Obama’s friendlier stance towards free trade has to be understood as a tactical move on his part as he was certain to be to the left of McCain on this issue. McCain has never even made an issue out of any labor or environmental protections relating to the issue and would have had serious problems with economic conservatives if he moved to the left on this issue as they never trusted him to begin with.

Even aside from the change in rhetoric, there is considerable evidence that has led numerous reasonable observers to believe Obama is, in fact, in favor of trade even as he is concerned with some of free trade’s side effects on American workers and the economy. Obama, for one, described himself as a “pro-growth, free-market guy.” Even the arch-conservative Weekly Standard was forced to concede in the midst of the general election campaign that Obama’s two main economic advisors Jason Furman and Austan Goolsbee, while liberals, were “centrist, pro-free traders.” George F. Will, my favorite columnist and a paleo-conservative – described Goolsbee as the best sort of liberal economist his conservative leanings could imagine:

Goolsbee no doubt has lots of dubious ideas – he is, after all, a Democrat – about how government can creatively fiddle with the market’s allocation of wealth and opportunity. But he seems to be the sort of person – amiable, empirical and reasonable – you would want at the elbow of a Democratic president, if such there must be.

Naomi Klein attacked these two herself as ideologically impure in a piece in The Nation magazine – and while I find Klein to be provactive, I think a pro-free trader could hardly have a better endorsement than an attack by Klein.

Obama’s official position on trade has remained consistent – even as his focus has changed over the course of the campaign. What has struck me about all of Obama’s positions is the extent to which they begin with an appreciation of conservative ideas – as his health care plan works within the market rather than by goverment fiat; as his stance on affirmative action reflects traditional concerns about whether we are trying to ensure the equality of oppurtunity or equality of the ends. His views on trade seem similar – as he embraces free markets and free trade – but wants to mitigate the negative side effects.

The Council on Foreign Relations, a group with a considerable interest in free trade, vouched for Obama’s support:

Sen. Obama (D-IL) generally supports free trade policies, though he has expressed concern about free trade agreements that do not include labor and environmental protections.

Tim Hanson and Nate Weisshaar of the Motley Fool probably best described the most reasonable concerns about Obama’s record on trade in their piece asking “Will Obama End Global Trade?” (the answer was, “Nope.”):

While Obama’s campaign literature will tell you that his goals are fairer trade, more assistance for displaced American workers, and greater global environmental protections, there is some global worry that an Obama administration might impose and sustain protectionist policies in order to reward labor union support for his campaign and get our economy back on its feet.

As private sector labor unions have been decimated in the global economy, and as Obama and the liberal consensus views them as part of the solution rather than a major problem, it’s hard to see exactly what steps Obama can take to rejuvenate unions.

In the end, the best way to understand and predict Obama’s trade policies is as part of his view of economics in general. Obama’s economic positions are consistent with a broad Democratic consensus that has emerged in the past decade – bringing together the two warring sides of the Clintonian era, short-handed as Robert Rubin versus Robert Reich for Clinton’s Labor and Treasury Secretaries. The Rubin school believed in expanding free trade, reducing deficits, encouraging overall growth without regard to it’s distribution, and deregulation. The Reich school believed in protecting labor unions, mitigating the effects of globalization through an expanded safety net and job-retraining programs, environmentalism, and was concerned with inequality. Over the past decade, many figures on both sides of this ideological divide have found worth in the ideas of their one-time competitors – as David Leonhardt’s New York Times Magazine piece called “Obamanomics” explained.

This Democratic consensus views free trade as a positive force in the world – but one that has numerous side effects that are negative. The role of government in this picture is to try to mitigate the negative effects of free trade – especially those temporary effects of the transition to a more globalized economy. Most of Obama’s domestic agenda is designed to accomplish these purposes – from the investment in a green energy industry to investment in infrastructure to health care reform to financial reforms. His nuanced position on trade reflects this same desire – to mitigate the destabilizing effects of globalization while acknowledging it’s benefits.

Appalachia

Thursday, November 6th, 2008

Yglesias gets there before me – pointing out the similarities between this map from the New York Times showing the areas of the country that voted more for McCain than for Bush between 2004 and 2008 and some other maps:

Here’s a map of those areas where Hillary Clinton overperformed during the primary (as of May 2008). She later overperformed in two of the remaining blank states here – West Virgina and Kentucky.

And here’s a map of Appalachia:

Notice – this isn’t a map of Republican areas. It’s a map of those areas where Hillary Clinton did exceptionally well, and a map of where Republican voting in 2008 exceeded that of 2004.

This issue seems a lot less urgent now than it did even last week.

But it’s worth remembering.

A Skeptic’s Case For Barack Obama

Tuesday, November 4th, 2008

When Barack Obama first announced he was going to run for president I was very skeptical – both about whether he was seasoned enough or whether this was his moment. It took me six months of reading, researching, and reflecting to finally come to decide that Obama was my choice.

I doubt anyone reading this blog over the past year would consider me to be a skeptic of Obama. But I did start out as one – and despite my strong support for Obama, I still remain one. Electing anyone as president is a risk – and those of us who are skeptical, who are less than completely taken with a candidate, who can sees the flaws along with the great opportunity – can be tempted to throw up our hands in despair and suggest – as many do – that each election is merely a choice between the lesser of two evils. But by giving up our place in politics, we cede power to those whose secular or religious convictions are certain – allowing them to drag us from one extreme to another.

There are serious issues we need to deal with as a nation in the next four years, issues which have been festering for far too long untended – global warming, terrorism, islamist extremism, the challenges of globalization, the fiscal instability, our deteriorating infrastructure, growing executive power. We need a president who can focus the country on these tasks and finally set us on the right path again.

Here are the reasons why I believe Barack Obama is the leader we need to set us on that path:

  1. Ideological Agnosticism.
    Despite the recent claims of Obama’s secret Marxist tendencies, his secret socialist tendencies, his secret terrorist sympathies, and the other extreme ideologies he is imputed to secretly profess, he is in fact a pragmatist – describing himself at one point as ideologically agnostic:

    I’m a Democrat. I’m considered a progressive Democrat. But if a Republican or a Conservative or a libertarian or a free-marketer has a better idea, I am happy to steal ideas from anybody and in that sense I’m agnostic.

    You can see this in Obama’s clear appreciation for Ronald Reagan and his belief in the power of markets (as you can see in his health care proposal [PDF] and his cap-and-trade proposal to combat global warming [PDF].) You can also see it in how he was able to find common cause and team up with one of the most conservative members of the Senate, Tom Coburn, on a bill to promote transparency in earmark spending.

  2. Post-partisanship.
    It’s a buzz word that most people have a sense of but not a clear understanding of. For Obama, post-partisanship is a campaign and governing strategy that focuses on long-term challenges, especially those with technocratic answers – such as global warming, health care, the financial crisis, and infrastructure development – while striving to minimize and find common ground on divisive social issues – such as abortion, gun rights, and gay marriage. Notice that in Obama’s convention speech he does not use the standard rhetoric about abortion or guns – but instead strives to move past these issues:

    The challenges we face require tough choices. And Democrats, as well as Republicans, will need to cast off the worn-out ideas and politics of the past, for part of what has been lost these past eight years can’t just be measured by lost wages or bigger trade deficits. What has also been lost is our sense of common purpose, and that’s what we have to restore.

    We may not agree on abortion, but surely we can agree on reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies in this country.

    The reality of gun ownership may be different for hunters in rural Ohio than they are for those plagued by gang violence in Cleveland, but don’t tell me we can’t uphold the Second Amendment while keeping AK-47s out of the hands of criminals.

    At the same time, Obama’s post-partisanship can be seen in his many attempts to encourage dialogue with and respect for ideological conservatives – and his reluctance to criticize the Republican party as a whole.

  3. Process Revolution.
    Lawrence Lessig, a Constitutional law professor, suggests that throughout American history there have been a number of unusual “revolutions whose purpose was not to tear down the existing social and governmental structures, but to amend them in discrete ways.” He cites the Second Constitional Convention and the post-Watergate reforms as clear examples – and he suggests as a result of Bush’s legacy, we may be on the verge of another “process revolution.” Many of Obama’s proposals focus on reforming processes rather than achieving certain ends. For example, he proposes to increase transparency for all aspects of government and to allow citizens a more active role in responding to and shaping government policy. Neither of these changes in process necessarily further liberal goals – but they both help reform government in general.
  4. His Campaign.
    As Peter Beinart wrote earlier this year:

    It is this remarkable hybrid campaign, far more than Obama’s thin legislative resume, that should reassure voters that he can run the government.

    The almost flawless manner in which Obama has run his campaign has helped assuage any doubts I had about Obama’s executive leadership capability. Add to that the fact that his opponent also has no relevant executive experience, and for me, the choice became more clear. Obama proved that he could win, that he was willing to fight hard, and if necessary dirty, but that he preferred the high road – and managed to – in Peggy Noonan’s phrase – take “down a political machine without raising his voice.”

  5. Obamanomics.”
    The term sounds hokey – but it refers to the Democratic consensus about the economic steps that need to be taken to get America on the right track economically – especially to reduce the middle class squeeze and to deal with the root causes of the financial crisis. The steps Obama proposes are not radical – they are moderate. You might almost call them “tinkering.”
  6. The Right Temperament.
    Conservative columnist and curmudgeon George F. Will clearly sees that one of the candidates has the wrong temperament – as he described McCain’s reaction to the current financial crisis:

    Under the pressure of the financial crisis, one presidential candidate is behaving like a flustered rookie playing in a league too high. It is not Barack Obama…[The more one sees of McCain’s] impulsive, intensely personal reactions to people and events the less confidence one has [in him] …It is arguable that McCain, because of his boiling moralism and bottomless reservoir of certitudes, is not suited to the presidency. Unreadiness can be corrected, although perhaps at great cost, by experience. Can a dismaying temperament be fixed?

    Another conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer admitted, while endorsing McCain, that Obama has “both a first-class intellect and a first-class temperament.” It is noteworthy that even these conservative stalwarts cannot avoid noticing that Obama’s steady, patient, consistent, even temperament.

  7. A Commander-in-Chief.
    The War on Terrorism, against international islamist extremism, is one of the core issues this election is about. It is impossible to project who will be able to handle the pressure of the commander-in-chief role well – except perhaps for those with relevant experience, such as high-level generals. But even that is no guarantee (see Grant, Ulysses.) Temperament is very important when choosing a commander-in-chief – but so is judgment. Obama has consistently shown good judgment regarding the War on Terrorism – most especially by opposing the War on Terrorism as a “dumb war” and by focusing on Pakistan and Afghanistan. And unlike either John McCain or George Bush, Obama has made it clear that he will not be outsourcing his responsibilities to a Secretary of Defense or to generals. As he told General Petreaus in Iraq: “My job as a potential Commander in Chief is to view your counsel and interests through the prism of our overall national security.” As a reader on Andrew Sullivan’s blog wrote:

    We can’t let it be assumed that McCain is stronger on national defense (including counter terrorism) just because he talks with more bluster than Obama. Seven years ago the world was shocked but united by 9/11. It was an environment in which the US could have led the world not just in acting militarily against terrorists, but actually eliminated terrorism by making it too politically costly. But then Bush muddied up the waters. We need a president who understands that mistake.

    A victory by John McCain will make Al Qaeda’s job easier. A victory by Obama will make it harder.

  8. Restoration.
    After September 11, 2001, the Bush administration began a systematic attempt – perhaps initially begun in good faith – to consolidate power in the executive branch, to ignore the rule of law and the Constitution, to torture American-held prisoners, and even to commit war crimes – while in the meantime undermining the entire international system created mainly by America and playing into Al Qaeda’s plans to draw us into conflicts in the Middle East. John McCain was one of the heroes who stood up to the Bush administration and against some of it’s worst excesses. He eloquently stated:

    The enemy we fight has no respect for human life or human rights. They don’t deserve our sympathy. But this isn’t about who they are. This is about who we are. These are the values that distinguish us from our enemies, and we can never, never allow our enemies to take those values away.

    And he’s exactly right. We must fight the War on Terror in a way consistent with our values – as Israel learned during the intifada and England learned during The Troubles, it is easy to let fear become the rationale behind policy (which is precisely what the “One Percent Doctrine” entails) – but in the end, you end up losing both your values and making the situation worse. McCain, despite some fine rhetoric, is not the candidate to restore American values – as he balked at preventing the CIA from torturing and called the Supreme Court decision supporting the ancient and basic right of habeas corpus the worst decision in the Court’s history. Obama does not have a perfect record on these issues – but he has made it a major theme of his campaign to restore our American values and the rule of law. Andrew Sullivan explained how he had watched America turn away from it’s values and that:

    until this unlikely fellow with the funny ears and strange name and exotic biography emerged on the scene, I had begun to wonder if it was possible at all. I had almost given up hope, and he helped restore it.

  9. Tinkering.
    Nassim Nicholas Taleb, an author, former Wall Street trader, economist, and philosopher who predicted the current financial crisis believes the best approach to action is something he calls “tinkering”:

    Taleb believes in tinkering – it was to be the title of his next book. Trial and error will save us from ourselves because they capture benign black swans. Look at the three big inventions of our time: lasers, computers and the internet. They were all produced by tinkering and none of them ended up doing what their inventors intended them to do. All were black swans. The big hope for the world is that, as we tinker, we have a capacity for choosing the best outcomes.

    “We have the ability to identify our mistakes eventually better than average; that’s what saves us.” We choose the iPod over the Walkman. Medicine improved exponentially when the tinkering barber surgeons took over from the high theorists. They just went with what worked, irrespective of why it worked. Our sense of the good tinker is not infallible, but it might be just enough to turn away from the apocalypse that now threatens Extremistan.

    Tinkering is the best we can do in a world we only imperfectly understand. Anyone looking at Obama’s policy proposals can see that he is a tinkerer rather than a revolutionary. For example, he seeks to build upon our current health care system rather than demolish it as McCain does in one manner and socialists do in another.

As I wrote before: Obama is a liberal pragmatist, with a conservative temperament, who seeks to understand the world as it is, to identify our long-term challenges, and to push (to nudge it) in a positive direction by tinkering with processes and institutions and creating tools to get people more involved in the government.

These are my reasons, as an initial skeptic, that I support Obama.

These are not reasons to be complacent if he does, in fact, win. But they are reasons to be satisfied – if only for one night – that our country is moving in the right direction again.

You don’t need to boo, you just need to vote…

Monday, November 3rd, 2008

[W]hen his Democratic crowds jeer at the mere mention of Senator John McCain, [Obama] offers a gentle scolding, “You don’t need to boo, you just need to vote.”

From Jeff Zeleny’s New York Times piece today. Contrast this with McCain’s and Palin’s escalating rhetoric and their seeming embrace of much of the negative attitudes of their crowds. McCain finally had enough and tried to calm some people down as the vehemence and extremism of his crowds became a political issue in and of itself – but you can still see him reveling in the boos at the mention of Obama, The New York Times, or other liberal bogeymen.

One of the essential elements of what makes Obama’s politics so compelling is that it is not toxic – as so much political dialogue today is. His attempt to raise the level of political discourse and to engage in respectful political dialogue has become one of his trademarks – even though his campaign has often failed to live up to this high standard.

Obama has proved that he is willing and able to hit back hard – and to land some low blows. But his focus has always been on the substance – for example, treating Keating Five as a distraction – producing an ad and holding it until McCain started his personal attacks on Obama.

All this reminds me of the story of the pro-life protestors at an Obama rally in New Hampshire the day before the primary election versus Hillary:

…the day before the New Hampshire primary, a group of pro-life protesters interrupted an Obama rally. They refused to stop chanting to allow Mr. Obama to speak, and after a few minutes, they were removed by security. The largely Democratic crowd was clearly on Barack’s side in this – booing the protesters, drowning their chants out. But after they left, Mr. Obama gently scolded the crowd:

Let me just say this though. Some people got organized to do that. That’s part of the American tradition we are proud of. And thats hard too, standing in the midst of people who disagree with you and letting your voice be heard.

Another story of Obama’s politically unnecessary grace comes Peggy Noonan wrote last Friday:

When the press was hitting hard on the pregnancy of Sarah Palin’s 17-year-old daughter, he did not respond with a politically shrewd “I have no comment,” or “We shouldn’t judge.” Instead he said, “My mother had me when she was 18,” which shamed the press and others into silence. He showed grace when he didn’t have to.

Let me be clear – Obama is no saint. But there is an uncommon grace about him, especially in contrast to our politics.

It is this grace that is the essence of Obama’s particular brand of post-partisanship. It is this grace that deflates the hyped-up fears that people like Fouad Ajami try to foment as they recall how leaders harnassing the power of crowds have brought down Arab societies. What Ajami misses is the relationship Obama has to the crowd – which makes all the difference.

(more…)

Quote of the Day

Monday, November 3rd, 2008

I don’t torture myself over decisions. I make them as quickly as I can, quicker than the other fellow, if I can. Often, my haste is a mistake, but I live with the consequences without complaint.

I’d love a president who could write this reflective statement. But I’d love even better a president who would not have to admit that he often makes hasty complaints.

Of course, McCain has lived with his Palin mistake without any public complaints.

Wanna See Something Really Scary?

Friday, October 31st, 2008

[Photo by Mykl Roventine, licensed under Creative Commons.]

Of course, this might be a better illustration of the “really scary” implications of the election – but it’s in less good taste.

Know Hope. Get Organized. Go Vote.