The Republican Ship of Fools

The Economist, a conservative magazine which has avoided the lunacy of the American right wing, has described the decline of the right wing. They note how the Republicans have lost the support of educated voters, but this is a reflection of the underlying problem: “The Republicans lost the battle of ideas even more comprehensively than they lost the battle for educated votes, marching into the election armed with nothing more than slogans.”

The Republicans not only lost the battle of ideas, but they no longer even have ideas which are relevant to the problems of the twenty-first century. Their policies are based upon a fantasy world build up in their echo chamber which ignores any facts which conflict with their ideology, believing that any sources of information which do not repeat their talking points as fact are showing liberal bias. They dig themselves deeper into the hole by promoting anti-intellectual incompetents such as George Bush and Sarah Palin while attacking those who demand competence and an understand of the issues by government leaders as elitists. The problem is described quite accurately by The Economist:

There are any number of reasons for the Republican Party’s defeat on November 4th. But high on the list is the fact that the party lost the battle for brains. Barack Obama won college graduates by two points, a group that George Bush won by six points four years ago. He won voters with postgraduate degrees by 18 points. And he won voters with a household income of more than $200,000—many of whom will get thumped by his tax increases—by six points. John McCain did best among uneducated voters in Appalachia and the South.

The Republicans lost the battle of ideas even more comprehensively than they lost the battle for educated votes, marching into the election armed with nothing more than slogans. Energy? Just drill, baby, drill. Global warming? Crack a joke about Ozone Al. Immigration? Send the bums home. Torture and Guantánamo? Wear a T-shirt saying you would rather be water-boarding. Ha ha. During the primary debates, three out of ten Republican candidates admitted that they did not believe in evolution.

The Republican Party’s divorce from the intelligentsia has been a while in the making. The born-again Mr Bush preferred listening to his “heart” rather than his “head”. He also filled the government with incompetent toadies like Michael “heck-of-a-job” Brown, who bungled the response to Hurricane Katrina. Mr McCain, once the chattering classes’ favourite Republican, refused to grapple with the intricacies of the financial meltdown, preferring instead to look for cartoonish villains. And in a desperate attempt to serve boob bait to Bubba, he appointed Sarah Palin to his ticket, a woman who took five years to get a degree in journalism, and who was apparently unaware of some of the most rudimentary facts about international politics.

Republicanism’s anti-intellectual turn is devastating for its future. The party’s electoral success from 1980 onwards was driven by its ability to link brains with brawn. The conservative intelligentsia not only helped to craft a message that resonated with working-class Democrats, a message that emphasised entrepreneurialism, law and order, and American pride. It also provided the party with a sweeping policy agenda. The party’s loss of brains leaves it rudderless, without a compelling agenda.

This is happening at a time when the American population is becoming more educated. More than a quarter of Americans now have university degrees. Twenty per cent of households earn more than $100,000 a year, up from 16% in 1996. Mark Penn, a Democratic pollster, notes that 69% call themselves “professionals”. McKinsey, a management consultancy, argues that the number of jobs requiring “tacit” intellectual skills has increased three times as fast as employment in general. The Republican Party’s current “redneck strategy” will leave it appealing to a shrinking and backward-looking portion of the electorate.

Why is this happening? One reason is that conservative brawn has lost patience with brains of all kinds, conservative or liberal. Many conservatives—particularly lower-income ones—are consumed with elemental fury about everything from immigration to liberal do-gooders. They take their opinions from talk-radio hosts such as Rush Limbaugh and the deeply unsubtle Sean Hannity. And they regard Mrs Palin’s apparent ignorance not as a problem but as a badge of honour.

Another reason is the degeneracy of the conservative intelligentsia itself, a modern-day version of the 1970s liberals it arose to do battle with: trapped in an ideological cocoon, defined by its outer fringes, ruled by dynasties and incapable of adjusting to a changed world. The movement has little to say about today’s pressing problems, such as global warming and the debacle in Iraq, and expends too much of its energy on xenophobia, homophobia and opposing stem-cell research.

Conservative intellectuals are also engaged in their own version of what Julian Benda dubbed la trahison des clercs, the treason of the learned. They have fallen into constructing cartoon images of “real Americans”, with their “volkish” wisdom and charming habit of dropping their “g”s. Mrs Palin was invented as a national political force by Beltway journalists from the Weekly Standard and the National Review who met her when they were on luxury cruises around Alaska, and then noisily championed her cause.

Cabinet Choices Might Suggest Direction of Obama Administration

The announcements of two major choices for the cabinet provided opportunity for speculation about the nature of an Obama administration. Cabinet members will ultimately wind up promoting the policies of the president they serve under, and legislation from Congress might alter all the intentions of the executive branch, but it is reasonable to wonder about the type of advice that cabinet members will be offering to the president.

Glenn Greenwald has reviewed some information on Eric Holder, Obama’s choice for Attorney General. It will be important for the next Attorney General to reverse the course of the Bush administration to return to the rule of law and to reverse the politicalization of the Justice Department. Greenwald provides evidence to suggest Holder might be a good candidate to promote these goals, along with showing promise on human rights issues:

The bulk of what I’ve read about and from Holder suggests, with a couple of ultimately marginal exceptions, that this appointment would be a very positive step.  Digby yesterday quoted at length from an impassioned speech Holder gave in June of this year in which he condemned Guantanamo as an “international embarrassment”; charged that “for the last 6 years the position of leader of the Free World has been largely vacant”; complained that “we authorized torture and we let fear take precedence over the rule of law“; and called for an absolute end both to rendition and warrantless eavesdropping.  He proclaimed that “the next president must move immediately to reclaim America’s standing in the world as a nation that cherishes and protects individual freedom and basic human rights.”

One major disappointment is in his position on the drug war as reported by Reason:

Barack Obama’s selection of Eric Holder as his attorney general is a very discouraging sign for anyone who hoped the new administration would de-escalate the war on drugs. As Dave Weigel noted earlier today, Holder pushed for stiffer marijuana penalties when he was the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, and the details are strikingly at odds not only with Obama’s signals regarding marijuana but with his opposition to long sentences for nonviolent drug offenders. According to a December 1996 report in The Washington Times excerpted at TalkLeft, Holder wanted “minimum sentences of 18 months for first-time convicted drug dealers, 36 months for the second time and 72 months for every conviction thereafter.” He also wanted to “make the penalty for distribution and possession with intent to distribute marijuana a felony, punishable with up to a five-year sentence.” The D.C. Council made the latter Holder-endorsed change in 2000. Holder thought New York City’s irrational, unjust crackdown on pot smokers was a fine idea and worth emulating, saying “we have too long taken the view that what we would term to be minor crimes are not important.” His rhetoric on the seriousness of marijuana offenses was indistinguishable from that of the most zealous Republican drug warrior.

I had hoped during the campaign that Obama would go even further than he has stated in the past in changing drug policy but was avoiding this topic while campaigning for political reasons. The appointment of Holder is discouraging on drug issues, but this could be an area where the underlying beliefs of the president trumps those of the AG.

The other major cabinet position announced was Tom Daschle for Secretary of Health and Human Services. Upon hearing the news I placed an order for his book Critical: What We Can Do About the Health-Care Crisis and hope to obtain more specific information on his views than is currently available on line.

An overview of Daschle’s thoughts on health care can be seen in an article he wrote at Huffington Post back in March. He does call for comprehensive reform as opposed to incremental change, but even before the financial crisis I suspected that economic and political realities will result in incremental change, even if more significant than seen in recent years, as opposed to an immediate plan for universal health care. The appointment of Daschle might indicate that Obama does see a push towards universal health care as part of an immediate economic package, along with seeing the value in having Daschle to push a plan in Congress.

Daschle’s ideas on health care reform center around creating a Federal Health Board:

The time is now for us to take this challenge head-on. What we need is a change in approach. In my book, Critical: What We Can Do About the American Health-Care Crisis, I have proposed a Federal Health Board that would be a foundation from which we could address all three problems. In many ways, the Federal Health Board would resemble our current Federal Reserve Board for the banking industry. Just as the Federal Reserve ensures certain standards, transparency and performance for our banking industry, the Fed Health would ensure harmonization across public programs of health-care protocols, benefits, and transparency. Ultimately, the Fed Health would offer a public framework within which a private health-care system could operate more effectively and efficiently.

The Fed Health could help reduce administrative costs. Roughly 30 cents of every dollar in health care is spent on administration rather than health benefits. Our administrative costs, on a per capita basis, are seven times higher than that of our peer nations. Each state has their own system for Medicaid and insurance regulation. We have different health-care systems for active duty military members versus veterans. And private insurers spend billions trying to enroll the healthy and avoid the sick. A Federal Health Board that sets evidence-based standards for benefits and quality for federal programs and insurance will lower this complexity and thus costs.

The Fed Health could also promote quality and save money by making the health-care system more transparent. Today, the lack of transparency in the system makes it virtually impossible for people to grasp what they are paying for and who provides them with the best care. This shroud of secrecy allows for wildly different prices for similar quality care. For example, a Pennsylvania report on heart surgery found hospitals with similar outcomes charge from $20,000 to $100,000. The Board, by ensuring transparency, would increase competition based on price and quality rather than cream skimming and cost sharing.

Additionally, the Fed Health could set standards for quality and coverage, promoting best practices and identifying the trade-offs on services. It would use information on the comparative clinical and cost effectiveness of different treatment options to set standards for Federal programs. The Congressional Budget Office recently credited this idea with the potential to produce substantial system-wide savings.

Such a board may or may not be incorporated in Obama’s health care plan. Regardless of its value, this does not really tell either health care professionals or consumers how he envisions changing the health care field when providing universal coverage. The devil is in the details of any health care plan considering how directly such details affect large numbers of people. These details are far more important than structures in Washington such as a Health Board, and failure to understand this quickly doomed Hillary Clinton’s attempts at changing health care.

There is still speculation that Hillary Clinton might become Secretary of State, provided that the problems with Bill’s associations can be resolved. The major advantages in having Clinton in this position would be to remove her from domestic policy, and limit the chances of her opposing Obama from a separate power base in the Senate. David Broder presented some arguments as to why Clinton is the wrong person for Secretary of State, primarily because “What Obama needs in the person running the State Department is a diplomat who will carry out his foreign policy.” I agree with his reservations about Clinton as Secretary of State but we disagree on the value in keeping Clinton away from domestic policy. Thomas Friedman has also pointed out the problems of having a Secretary of State whose views differ from the president.

Despite the excellent arguments made against the appointment of Clinton by Broder and Friedman, the need for Obama to keep his enemies close might outweigh these considerations. The choice of Clinton would certainly mean that the advice of the Secretary of State would be worthless and generally should be ignored. This dilemma makes me glad to hear that John Kerry is expected to be named Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, assuming he does not wind up becoming Secretary of State. Kerry’s advice would be of value from either position, and there is a certain satisfaction in seeing John Kerry advance over the years from a young veteran protesting the Vietnam War before this committee to becoming its chairman.