Glenn Kessler Gets The Facts Wrong On John Kerry And The Iraq War

Fact checkers at their best provide a very useful service. However, putting a label of Factchecker on the works of a columnist does not automatically make them a credible source. Glenn Kessler of The Washington Post loves to award Pinocchios for statements he considers false (or, as is often the case, disagrees with). His assessments are frequently not supported by the facts. At times even his own newspaper has printed evidence contradicting stands taken by Kessler.  He once again ignored most of the pertinent facts in claiming John Kerry was lying when saying he opposed the Iraq War.

The confusion on Kerry’s view on the war stemmed from the primary battle in which Howard Dean  sought to position himself as an opponent of the war and Kerry as a supporter, despite the two holding essentially the same view. Dean did this by turning the 2002 vote into a sole litmus test when the issue was actually far more complicated.

To understand Kerry’s view, it is first important to look at his statement at the time of the vote:

“My vote was cast in a way that made it very clear, Mr. President, I’m voting for you to do what you said you’re going to do, which is to go through the U.N. and do this through an international process. If you go unilaterally, without having exhausted these remedies, I’m not supporting you. And if you decide that this is just a matter of straight pre-emptive doctrine for regime-change purposes without regard to the imminence of the threat, I’m not going to support you.”

At the same time Bush was claiming that the vote was not necessarily a vote to go to war. Bush said this about the vote: “Approving this resolution does not mean that military action is imminent or unavoidable. The resolution will tell the United Nations, and all nations, that America speaks with one voice and is determined to make the demands of the civilized world mean some.”

Bush was probably not being honest here and Kerry should not have voted yes (as he later admitted) but this vote when interpreted in light of Kerry’s statements on the vote, is not evidence of support for the war. It is necessary to look at additional statements to clarify this. Kerry wrote this in an op-ed in The New York Times at the time of the vote:

For the sake of our country, the legitimacy of our cause and our ultimate success in Iraq, the administration must seek advice and approval from Congress, laying out the evidence and making the case. Then, in concert with our allies, it must seek full enforcement of the existing cease-fire agreement from the United Nations Security Council. We should at the same time offer a clear ultimatum to Iraq before the world: Accept rigorous inspections without negotiation or compromise. Some in the administration actually seem to fear that such an ultimatum might frighten Saddam Hussein into cooperating. If Saddam Hussein is unwilling to bend to the international community’s already existing order, then he will have invited enforcement, even if that enforcement is mostly at the hands of the United States, a right we retain even if the Security Council fails to act. But until we have properly laid the groundwork and proved to our fellow citizens and our allies that we really have no other choice, we are not yet at the moment of unilateral decision-making in going to war against Iraq.

Bush failed to meet the criteria Kerry clearly set at the time of the vote under which he would support going to war.

Salon later asked Kerry about the vote in an interview on May 28, 2004:

SALON: According to recent polls, more than 50 percent of the American public now believes that the war in Iraq has not been worth the cost. Do you agree with that assessment?

KERRY: I’ve always believed that the president went to war in a way that was mistaken, that he led us too rapidly into war, without sharing the cost, without sharing the risk, without building a true international coalition. He broke his promises about going as a last resort. I think that was a mistake. There was a right way to hold Saddam Hussein accountable and a wrong way. He chose the wrong way.

SALON: But you voted in October 2002 to give Bush the authority to use force in Iraq. Was that vote a mistake?

KERRY: No. My vote was the right vote. If I had been president, I would have wanted that authority to leverage the behavior that we needed. But I would have used it so differently than the way George Bush did.

SALON: Would there have been a war in Iraq if you had been president?

KERRY: I can’t tell you that. If Saddam Hussein hadn’t disarmed and all the world had decided that he was not living up to the standards, who knows? You can’t answer that hypothetical. But I can tell you this. I would never have rushed the process in a way that undoes the meaning of going to war “as a last resort.”

SALON: And that’s what you thought you were authorizing — war as a last resort?

KERRY: Absolutely. You know, we got a set of promises: We’re going to build an international coalition, we’re going to exhaust the remedies of the U.N., respect that process and go to war as a last resort. Well, we didn’t.

KERRY: And not only [did we] not go to war as a last resort, they didn’t even make the plans for winning the peace. They disregarded them. They disregarded [U.S. Army General Eric] Shinseki’s advice, disregarded Colin Powell’s advice, disregarded the State Department’s plan. The arrogance of this administration has cost Americans billions of dollars and too many lives.

Kerry spoke out against going to war many times in the months between the vote and the onset of the war. In a speech at Georgetown before the onset of the Iraq War:

“Mr. President, do not rush to war,” said Kerry, whose speech marked him as the most skeptical about war of the top-tier contenders for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination.

While calling for the United Nations to intensify pressure on Iraq to disarm, Kerry urged Bush to give more time to the U.N. inspections process that the administration has increasingly condemned as inadequate.

“The United States should never go to war because it wants to; the United States should go to war because we have to,” Kerry said at Georgetown University. “And we don’t have to until we have exhausted the remedies available, built legitimacy and earned the consent of the American people, absent, of course, an imminent threat requiring urgent action.”

While his vote could create confusion as to his stand, Kerry’s statements leading up to the war showed clear opposition. When Bush did invade, Kerry protested calling for regime change at home, again showing clear opposition to the war. Kessler needs to look at all the facts before rushing to award Pinocchios. Granted this is more difficult here as many of the original sources are no longer easily available on line, but that does not justify Kessler making such inaccurate assessments. In ignoring Kerry’s many statements before the war, Glenn Kessler should be awarded five dunce caps.

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Sarah Palin, Howard Dean, and Liberal Bloggers All Making Mistakes In Discussing the Medicare Independent Payment Advisory Board

Ever since Howard Dean had an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal calling for elimination of the Medicare Independent Payment Advisory Board, conservative sites have been using this to claim, as Investors Business Daily has, that Sarah Palin was right about death panels. The problem with their argument is that Howard Dean got some of the facts wrong, and Palin’s argument remains a stretch. However, liberal bloggers also continued to make mistakes in discussing the IPAB in rebuttals to Dean. While Dean was wrong in calling for its abolition, there were problems in the originator Senate version of the Affordable Care Act which should be fixed.

Howard Dean is wrong in claiming that the IPAB will not cut costs. There is no question that a board with the power to change how Medicare operates is capable of cutting costs. Dean is misleading in writing, “The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has indicated that the IPAB, in its current form, won’t save a single dime before 2021.” The reason for this is not that it cannot cut costs, but that the cost cutting regulations do not become effective until Medicare costs raise above a certain point, which the CBO does not project will happen until 2022. While the IPAB’s rulings only directly affect Medicare, it is common for private plans to mirror changes in Medicare, but paying at a higher rate.

The idea behind the IPAB is to have medical experts make proposals for cost cutting in Medicare to take this out of the political process. On paper the board is not allowed to ration care, but by itself this argument in its defense is bogus. Howard Dean does have a point here. Rationing is not well defined in the legislation. Any changes in how Medicare reimburses physicians, either in terms of dollar amounts or, as is most likely to occur, the nature of the payment system, will lead to reduced spending in some areas and could be considered rationing. The important point here is that it is not necessarily the IPAB which might ration care. If you consider this to be rationing, the same could be said about any Congressional changes in Medicare reimbursement. The question then becomes whether it is better for Congress or for a panel of experts to decide where spending cuts should occur.

From this perspective, the IPAB is a good idea and should not be abolished. However, there are two structural problems which should be revised.

The first is trying to legislate Medicare cuts in the future. With an aging population and unknown new technology, we cannot predict today how much we should spend on Medicare after 2021. There obviously needs to be some limit on costs, but this is a decision which should be made by Congress at the time. We already have seen the problems with attempts to legislate automatic decreases in Medicare payment with the Sustainable Growth Rate. Using this flawed plan, we run into the situation where the automatic formula would reduce Medicare payments to a level where physicians simply would not be able to afford to treat Medicare patients. Now pretty much every year, and sometimes more often, Congress has to intervene and overrule the cuts called for with the Sustainable Growth Rate. The current legislation creates similar problems.

The second problem is that the IPAB has insufficient accountability. It makes sense to have decisions made outside of the current legislative process, analogous to an independent panel making recommendations for military base closings. Many liberal bloggers defending the IPAB have used this analogy, but many incorrect believe that, like the military base recommendations, the decisions of the IPAB will be subject to an up or down vote by Congress. The portions of the Affordable Care Act which create the IPAB make it virtually impossible that Congress will be able to override their rulings. On the other hand, I have read speculation that Congress might be able to pass supplemental spending bills to replace things cut by the IPAB, comparable to how they currently override the cuts which would come from the Sustainable Growth Rate. However, this would not solve the problem should the IPAB make structural changes in Medicare which lead to physicians not being willing to accept Medicare patients.

The IPAB as was passed in the Senate version of health care reform legislation should be maintained but reformed so that an up or down vote by Congress is required to accept their recommendations, and so that cuts are not automatically required. While many Democrats now feel compelled to defend this aspect of the law as passed (largely in response to the ridiculous hyperbole coming from the right in opposition), we must keep in mind that the Senate version was passed only because of the Democrats losing a super majority in the Senate, preventing the normal process of the Senate passing a final bill following reconciliation with the superior House bill. Changes should be made, but not repeal of this or the entire bill as Republicans are calling for. Unfortunately, the Republican refusal to engage in the normal legislative process will probably make fixing the problems in the Affordable Care Act unlikely to occur in Congress.

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Howard Dean’s Anti-Obama Scream

I have suspected that there was bad blood between the Obama Administration and Howard Dean since the start, including the fact that he was not kept on as chair of the Democratic National Committee. Dean has some over the top comments on Obama’s budget proposals as described by Buzzfeed. He gives an inaccurate portrayal, essentially describing it as a combination of cuts to Social Security in exchange for increasing military spending. He even threatens to leave the Democratic Party over this:

“If this passed I would have to reevaluate if I belong in the Democratic Party. If this were passed with Democratic votes, I think it would be impossible to be Democrat.”

“I would have to oppose any Democrat that is supportive of this,” Dean added.

In an email to several Democratic consultants Sunday night he forwarded to BuzzFeed, Dean excoriated the White House over the defense spending in Obama’s budget proposal.

“If the businessweek.com article I sent you is correct, it means the Prez proposed chain CPI cutting SS benefits while asking to restore Pentagon spending. He would never get that through either chamber,” Dean wrote. “What the hell are they thinking or is BW wrong?”

Ed Kilgore compared this to the Dean scream (acknowledging that the scream was greatly exaggerated by the media) and points out past criticism of Howard Dean for his previous support for Medicare cuts. This was a topic I researched in great detail back during the 2003-4 primary campaign, ending my support for Dean when the evidence clearly showed he was lying when he denied his previous position on Medicare.

There is no doubt that when Howard Dean supported Medicare cuts it was not because he has a great passion for cutting Medicare, but because he saw that as a politically necessary compromise. The same could be said about Obama’s budget proposal. It is a compromise, and while we would all prefer to see no cuts to Social Security at all, it is not as bad a deal as many are saying.

One major benefit is that it gets rid of most of the cuts from the sequester. Yes, that means that military spending cuts would be restored. It also mean that the cuts to social programs will be preserved. To only point out the change in military spending while ignoring the increases to social spending is not very honest. Obama’s budget would also help preserve Medicare financially, even putting an end to the sustainable growth formula which is contributing to the difficulty of many Medicare patients to find physicians who will accept them.

Being a compromise, there are good and bad aspects. While any cut to Social Security is undesirable, the cuts proposed by Obama are not as severe as many fear. By reducing the cost of living adjustments (by changing how they are calculated), Social Security payments will still go up, but by a smaller amount. In any given year the monetary amount of the difference will be fairly small, well under $100 per year.

There are two major problems with this, and Obama has addressed both. Lower income people who cannot afford any reduction in potential benefits will be hit the hardest, but Obama has supported an adjustment to provide them with greater benefits. As the reduction in calculated cost of living increases is cumulative, this could hurt seniors more as they get older. It is not possible to give an exact dollar amount to this as we don’t know future inflation rates, but one report I heard on NPR estimated that an 85 year old might receive $600 less per year than they would receive without chained CPI. I have also seen projections that this could top $1000 per year after twenty years. However, Obama is also proposing an adjustment starting at age 74 to make up for this cumulative change over time.  These offsets are expected to actually reduce the rate of poverty among the elderly. Robert Greenstein, President of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, has considerable criticism of the budget plan but does point out:

In an effort to address this problem, the budget includes a series of adjustments and protections for the very old and for people with low incomes.  No set of adjustments can fully shield the very old or the poor, but the Obama package is robust and well designed.  It should prevent an increase in the overall poverty rate among the very old and would shield the beneficiaries of most programs that focus on people at the bottom.

There are benefits to this compromise beyond reversing the cuts in the sequester. If liberals want to pay for social programs, it is necessary to get approval for the spending through a Republican House and a Senate where 40 Republicans can also block Democratic programs. This budget, with all its faults, does give liberals increased taxes on the wealthy, and more money for social spending. This is not an easy accomplishement (and Republicans are showing no signs of going along with this deal).  James Vega, at The Democratic Strategist has a good look at the realities of presidential power these days, explaining why Obama feels he must appease those in the center who see cutting the deficit as a major political goal:

Let’s face it. Every Democratic president has to walk a very fine line in dealing with the business community and the economic elite of this country. That group is not entirely composed of extreme right wing ideologues like the Koch Brothers (although there is a very disturbingly large group who are). Many are relatively pragmatic individuals who are willing to accept a certain range of progressive policies when the political climate of the country overwhelmingly favors them. The majority of American businessmen are not going to go on a John Galt-style “producers strike” and shut down all their banks, offices and factories to protest a modest tax increase nor will they try to foment a military coup because they don’t like Elizabeth Warren.

But on the other hand, any Democratic president absolutely has to maintain a certain working relationship with the business community or face huge obstacles to almost all of his domestic priorities. Had Obama seriously threatened to prosecute substantial sectors of the business and the financial community for their role in the financial crisis when he first took office in 2008, he would not have gotten the stimulus bill, the modest financial regulation bill that he did get or health care reform. There were only a few major business figures who went overboard with hysterical accusations that Obama was out to destroy the entire free enterprise system in 2009, but if he had really come down hard on business and Wall Street that attack would have been picked up and become so widespread in the business world that plenty of Democratic Congress and Senate members would have melted away from supporting Obama’s first term agenda like snowflakes in forest fire…

Now the business guys at the table are not completely unreasonable. A recent opinion studyDemocracy and the Policy Preferences of Wealthy Americans,” by Benjamin I. Page and Jason Seawright of Northwestern and Larry Bartels of Vanderbilt, indicates that the “1 percenters” — those with $8 million in net worth – are at least somewhat open to some relatively liberal economic ideas. Most agreed, for example, with improving public infrastructure such as highways, bridges and airports; scientific research; and aid to education. They also agreed that the Social Security system should ensure a minimum standard of living to all contributors, even if some receive benefits exceeding the value of their contribution and they also agreed that people with high incomes actually should pay a larger share of their incomes in taxes than those with low incomes. And they recognized the need for sensible regulations.

But on the other hand, the study also found the following:

When we asked respondents how important they considered each of eleven possible problems facing the United States, budget deficits headed the list. Fully 87 percent of our wealthy respondents said deficits are a “very important” problem facing the country. Only 10 percent said “somewhat important,” and a bare 4 percent said “not very important at all.” The high priority put on this issue was confirmed by responses to an open-ended question about “the most [emphasis added] important problem facing this country today.” One third (32 percent) of all open-ended responses mentioned budget deficits or excessive government spending, far more than mentioned any other issue. Furthermore, at various points in their interviews many respondents spontaneously mentioned “government over-spending.” Unmistakably, deficits were a major concern for most of our wealthy respondents…. [In contrast, unemployment and education] were mentioned as the most important problem by only 11 percent, indicating that they ranked a distant second and third to budget deficits.

So it’s not just the professional deficit scolds like Pete Peterson or the PR shop called “Fix the Debt” who are pushing the deficit fixation. Nor is it just the columnists and editorial writers at the Washington Post. The belief that dealing with the deficit is the most important national issue is pretty much a consensus opinion of America’s wealthy and business elite.

Unfortunately, while economically there is no great need to cut Social Security at this time,  far too many people in both the business elite and in the media are as certain that this is necessary as progressives are opposed. After further discussion, which should be read in its entirety, Vega gives far more rational advice to those who still disagree with Obama’s policies than Howard Dean does:

Obama has made a basic strategic calculation about how far he has to go to propitiate some part of the economic elite that holds tremendous power in American society. Progressives can and should debate his decision and, if they disagree, criticize it on that realistic strategic basis. They should not get sidetracked instead by arguments based on extraneous and essentially irrelevant claims regarding Obama’s flaws of character, defects of personality or inadequate fealty to the ethos and ideals of progressivism.

When all the calculations and projections are done, there still might be strong reasons for liberals to oppose Obama’s compromise. However, a knee jerk opposition to absolutely any cuts in Social Security, without considering the actual numbers and what is received in return, is as irrational as Republicans signing a pledge to never raise taxes. There remains plenty of good reasons to still oppose this plan, but not because absolutely no cuts to Social Security could be considered, even if they include offsets to protect the poorest and oldest seniors. Remember that we are supposedly the reality based community. Look at the facts, and certainly don’t follow Howard Dean’s bogus scream that Obama is taking money away from seniors in order to increase military spending.

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Why Howard Dean Is Wrong In Seeing Any Value In The Tea Party Movement

Howard Dean has made many liberals wonder whether he ever did really represent the Democratic Wing of the Democratic Party with his comments on the Tea Party:

“I actually approve of most of what the tea party is doing… I think it’s great to have individuals reach out to take their own responsibility for their own [future] and lashing out against government that has really forgotten them… but I also believe that there is a fringe of racism in the tea party, which unfortunately for the tea party that is focused on” by the media.

If you look at this superficially, his comments on individuals lashing out against the government might make sense. What Dean misses is that these people support conservative government and only lash out against liberal government (or their misconceptions of what the government is doing based upon misinformation spread by people like Glenn Beck). They weren’t out protesting against the economic policies of George Bush which created this economic mess. They weren’t out there protesting against the abuses of civil liberties, Republicans lying us into an unnecessary and foolish war, or the expansion of power for the Executive Branch. However when faced with a center-left Democrat (who actually would be center-right in Europe) they scream of an imaginary socialist threat

It actually would be a good thing if we had a fiscally conservative movement which was rational in their review of Democratic spending proposals and which didn’t carry all the other baggage of the authoritarian right. Unfortunately the Tea Party fails badly on both counts. Rather than providing a useful opposition which forces the Democrats to justify their spending before offering approval, the Tea Party blindly oppose everything.

There is a wide variety of individuals in the Tea Party movement but none of them have shown any grasp of how the budget really works. There is very little discretionary spending in the budget and in order to reduce the deficit as they demand three things must be done: 1) raise taxes, 2) slash military spending, and 3) slash spending on entitlements. Few, if any, in the Tea Party would go for either the first or second. Some would support cutting entitlements but this would launch a schism in the movement as others would protest any cuts in their Medicare.

The other problem remains that, even though the Tea Parties officially stress economic issues, these people have not suddenly dropped all their other views. The Tea Party is just today’s name for the far right wing of the Republican Party. This is just another reenactment of Rockefeller versus Goldwater in 1964, with both sides now considerably far to the right of both of them. Obviously there are no liberal Republicans such as Rockefeller on either side, and Barry Goldwater rejected the social conservatism seen in the Tea Party when he declared himself to be a liberal in his later years.

Andrew Sullivan explained how there isn’t any common ground between left and right in responding to a post by Jesse Walker:

If only a left/right alliance would cooperate to end the drug war, get a grand compromise on the debt, and rein in defense spending and police state creep. But seriously, does Jesse really believe that the Tea Party would do any of these things?

Yes, they are, for the most part, emphasizing economic and fiscal issues, which is wonderful, even though they have no actual realistic plans to cut spending by the amount they would have to if taxes are not to rise. But that does not mean they have in any way forsaken the social issues substantively. Name a tea-party candidate who is pro-choice. Name one who backs marriage equality. Name one who wants to withdraw from Afghanistan beginning next year. Name one who has opposed torture. Name one who has the slightest qualms about police powers. Name one who would end the military ban on gays serving openly, and take even the slightest political risk on any of these subjects.

I welcome the belated right-wing opposition to out-of-control government spending. But the one thing you have to note about tea-party fervor is that none of it existed when they had real leverage over a Republican president, who spent us into bankruptcy. That tells you something. And if you think a party led by Palin will not embrace every neocon crusade or Christianist social policy, you’re dreaming.

Despite taking symbolism from the American Revolution, keep in mind that in any analogy to the revolution the far right would be the Tories, opposing  the revolution and opposing liberals who share the ideals of the Founding Fathers.

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Planned Islamic Community Center Turns Politicians Of Both Parties Into Babbling Idiots

The planned Islamic Community Center planned near ground zero has resulted in a lot of nonsense. Most of it has come from the right, who mischaracterized it as a Ground Zero Mosque, with the right wingers showing no respect for either freedom of religion or property rights. Some of the nonsense also came from the Democrats. I really don’t know what Nancy Pelosi is talking about here, as she speaks of looking into “who is funding the attacks against the construction of the center.”  Her clarification does not make much more sense. (Of course this is not the first time I’ve questioned if Nancy Pelosi was making sense).

What is obviously going on here (along with Harry Reid trying to sound like a conservative on this in the midst of a tough election campaign) is that the Democrats still have absolutely no idea how to counter the the hateful and ignorant rhetoric from the far right. Instead they look at the polls and find that a majority of Americans support the conservative position in this and fear saying anything meaningful.

If  Islamic terrorists who had flown planes into the World Trade Building had wanted to build a mosque near ground zero I would understand the opposition. Of course those who desire to build the Community Center had no more connection to 9/11 than Saddam Hussein did.

As long as the Democrats fail to provide leadership and manage to speak out intelligibly on such issues a majority of people will listen to the right wing position. Democrats need to counter Republican rhetoric and misinformation with intelligent and factual responses. They won’t win by chickening out and hoping that Rachel Maddow or liberal bloggers will manage to bring some sense to the debates.

Update: Not Howard Dean too.

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Democrats Put Significant Resources Into Getting New Voters Out In 2010

The Democrats have two major problems going into the off-year elections: 1) they must defend many seats which have been historically Republican but picked up in the last two election cycles, and 2) they will not have Barack Obama on the ballot to bring in the new voters and young voters who traditionally do not vote in off year elections.

As I noted earlier this spring, the Democrats are attempting to turn out the new voters. Karen Tumulty reported on this in The Washington Post and characterized it as a gamble:

As political gambles go, it’s a big and risky one: $50 million to test the proposition that the Democratic Party’s outreach to new voters that helped make Barack Obama president can work in an election where his name is not on the ballot.

The standard rule of midterm elections is that only the most reliable voters show up at the polls, so both parties have traditionally focused on the unglamorous and conventional work that turns out their bases. But this year, the Democrats are doubling down on registering and motivating newer voters — especially the 15 million heavily minority and young, who made it to the polls for the first time in the last presidential election.

“It’s a great experiment to see whether we can bring out voters whose only previous vote was in 2008,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

The party’s overall budget for reaching new voters is more than twice as big as the $17 million it spent during the tumultuous 2006 midterm, which returned control of both houses of Congress to the Democrats.

If this is a gamble, it is a gamble similar to Howard Dean’s fifty state strategy. The Democrats need these voters to turn out to avoid losing several seats in both Houses and it only makes sense to make the effort to try.

I think it is a safe bet to say that this will not be completely successful. There’s little doubt that young voters and new voters will not turn out as they did in 2008. However this is not a win or lose proposition. The Democrats can benefit if the effort is partially successful and brings out enough voters to tip the vote in their election in some Congressional districts. In addition, keeping such grass roots operations alive helps prepare for the 2012 elections–helping both Barack Obama and other Democratic candidates on the ballot.

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Transforming An Insurgent Campaign Into A Governing Philosophy

Running an insurgent campaign is one thing. It is harder to be the insurgent force once you are in office. Tim Dickinson looked into the attempt to make this transformation in an article at Rolling Stone. He places the blame for the failure to maintain the enthusiasm for Obama’s agenda on David Plouffe, who was eager to get out after the campaign:

“There was no question of my joining the administration,” he recounts in his memoir. So Plouffe, in a truly bizarre call, decided to incorporate Obama for America as part of the Democratic National Committee. The move meant that the machinery of an insurgent candidate, one who had vowed to upend the Washington establishment, would now become part of that establishment, subject to the entrenched, partisan interests of the Democratic Party. It made about as much sense as moving Greenpeace into the headquarters of ExxonMobil.

This led to problems including becoming two closely identified with the Democratic Party machinery, risking the alienation of independents and Republicans who backed Obama. The departure of Plouffe (who has since rejoined the Obama administration as an adviser) also led to a more conventional legislative strategy:

The decision to shunt Organizing for America into the DNC had far-reaching consequences for the president’s first year in office. For starters, it destroyed his hard-earned image as a new kind of politician, undercutting the post-partisan aura that Obama enjoyed after the election. “There were a lot of independents, and maybe even some Republicans, on his list of 13 million people,” says Joe Trippi, who launched the digital age of politics as the campaign manager for Howard Dean in 2004. “They suddenly had to ask themselves, ‘Do I really want to help build the Democratic Party?’”

In addition, with Plouffe providing less input in his inner circle, Obama began to pursue a more traditional, backroom approach to enacting his agenda. Rather than using OFA to engage millions of voters to turn up the heat on Congress, the president yoked his political fortunes to the unabashedly transactional style of politics advocated by his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel. Health care reform — the centerpiece of his agenda — was no longer about mobilizing supporters to convince their friends, families and neighbors in all 50 states. It was about convincing 60 senators in Washington. It became about deals.

This affected how health care reform was approached:

What backfired, it turns out, was ceding populist outrage on health care to the far right. Because OFA failed to mobilize the American people to confront the insurance companies, it allowed industry-funded Republicans, like former House majority leader Dick Armey, to foment a revolt by the Tea Partiers, whose anger dominated the news. Stewart, the director of OFA, says the failure to anticipate last summer’s town-hall ragefest was his. “Organizing for America did not properly plan for that first week of August,” he says. “That was an error on my part.” OFA scrambled to rally its troops, generating more than 300,000 calls to Congress on a single day. But the belated effort typified the group’s first year. “It’s always reactive and half-hearted,” says Moulitsas. “The movement was built on the concept of big change — but they haven’t gone after the things you need to do to enact change.” Indeed, OFA’s own numbers reveal a sharp drop-off in activist participation: All told, only 2.5 million of its 13 million followers took part in its health care campaign last year — and that’s counting people who did nothing but sign the group’s “statement of support.”

“It didn’t work — with an exclamation point at the end!” says Rollins, the former Reagan strategist. “They didn’t keep the organization alive. They thought it was out there to use whenever they wanted to use it. But with constituents who feel like they’ve been part of a revolution — as ours did in ’80 and ’81 — you’ve got to feed them. You’ve got to make sure that they feel important.” Instead, says Rollins, OFA “e-mailed them to death, but without any real steps to make them feel a part of the process, like they felt a part of the campaign.”

Fortunately the Obama administration is becoming more engaged in pushing for health care reform. The question is if it is too late to overcome the propaganda campaign of the far right which has many people believing false claims regarding the legislation.

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Obama and The Health Care Legislation

Until Barack Obama’s election I do not recall a president who received so much criticism for doing what he said he would do during the campaign. It is one thing, and perfectly legitimate, to criticize Obama when one disagrees with him. Having said he would do something as a candidate does not make him immune to criticism for his policies once elected. It is a different thing, as some on the left are doing, to claim that Obama sold them out or act shocked by his current policies.

Barack Obama campaigned as a centrist, pragmatic politician who planned to try to consider the views of the opposing party. While campaigning he said he would remain in Afghanistan, and it was clear he would not concentrate on prosecuting Bush administration officials for their acts in office. As Ezra Klein points out, he also campaigned on a health care plan (pdf here)  similar to the one being considered in Congress:

…the basic structure of the proposal is remarkably similar. Here’s how it was described in the campaign’s white paper:

“The Obama-Biden plan provides new affordable health insurance options by: (1) guaranteeing eligibility for all health insurance plans; (2) creating a National Health Insurance Exchange to help Americans and businesses purchase private health insurance; (3) providing new tax credits to families who can’t afford health insurance and to small businesses with a new Small Business Health Tax Credit; (4) requiring all large employers to contribute towards health coverage for their employees or towards the cost of the public plan; (5) requiring all children have health care coverage; (5) expanding eligibility for the Medicaid and SCHIP programs; and (6) allowing flexibility for state health reform plans.”

We don’t know what the employer mandate will look like once the House and the Senate merge their bills, and the exchanges look likelier to be run by states or regions than by the government (though there will also be a national exchange overseen by the Office of Personnel Management), but those are really the only differences. And it’s not even clear they’re differences.

Going through the legislative process has led to some changes. A key difference is the individual mandate. While I wish Obama had stuck with his opposition, the change is understandable. Ezra Klein, whose understanding of  the realities of health care in the real world is far weaker than his study of legislation, believes this is because his plan would not work without mandates. The real reason Obama gave in is more likely that this was a compromise which was necessary to get a bill passed. He first tried to make a deal with the insurance industry by agreeing to their demands for a mandate in return for ending the restrictions based upon pre-existing conditions. Once this issue was taken up in Congress, leaders from both parties supported the individual mandate, making it futile for Obama to fight it.

The other big change, and the one which has disappointed the left the most, is the elimination of the public plan in the Senate bill. Obama’s strategy has certainly been one of getting a bill passed even if compromise is necessary, but he does not deserve the amount of blame he has been receiving for the elimination of the mandate. It was Joe Lieberman who killed the mandate, yet surprisingly many on the left are accepting the word of Lieberman (as well as Howard Dean, who has his own axe to grind with the Obama administration) on this.  Joe Lieberman’s argument comes down to telling the left not to blame him for opposing the public option because Obama didn’t try hard enough to twist his arm.

Tom Harkin has a different take on the public option, disagreeing with the claims that this failed because of Obama. Harkin also says that the public option will be revisited. Even if it doesn’t make it into the final bill during reconciliation with the House bill, it is possible to bring up the public option again as a separate bill in the future. Considering the degree of public support for the public option, it might even make more sense to have a separate battle over this during an election year, or even in 2011.

I will not attempt to say whether the bill should be passed until the final legislation is available. The Senate bill has many faults, but passage is the only way to go to conference with the House and attempt to improve it. The bill must be judged not against our ideas of a perfect plan, but against the status quo, where the individual market might not survive much longer unless one is young and health or has lots of money to burn. Any final bill must be considered on its merits and not be judged based upon litmus tests such as whether there is a public option. Even Jacob S. Hacker, who devised the idea of a public plan, is arguing in favor of passage of the current Senate plan. Whatever the details are in the final plan, it does not appear that it will be radically different from the plan discussed when Obama was campaigning.

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Friction On The Left Over Health Care Getting More Personal

The battle over health care reform on the left is getting more personal. Ronald Brownstein attacked Howard Dean for his criticism of the bill:

Maybe one reason former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and so much of the digital Left can so casually dismiss the Senate health care reform bill is that they operate in an environment where so few people need to worry about access to insurance.

The 2004 presidential campaign that propelled Dean to national prominence was fueled predominantly by “wine track” Democratic activists-generally college-educated white liberals. (In the virtually all-white 2004 Iowa caucus, for instance, exit polls showed that two-thirds of Dean’s votes came from voters with a college degree.) Those are the same folks, all evidence suggests, who provide the core support for online activist groups like MoveOn.org or Dean’s Democracy for America and congregate most enthusiastically on liberal websites. (According to studies by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, college graduates are more than twice as likely as those with only a high-school degree to communicate about politics online.) Along with Dean, those digital Democratic activists are generating the loudest demands to derail the Senate bill.

Some individuals in these overlapping political networks undoubtedly face challenges with access to health care, but as a group college-educated whites are much less likely than any other segment of the population to lack health insurance

This may or may not be what is influencing Dean, but he does have some valid points which deserve an answer, along with some points which have been countered. Considering how similar the current plan is to his 2004 plan which also lacked a public option, it is also possible that the bad blood between Dean and the White House is influencing him on this.  This was most evident when Dean was not offered a spot in the Obama administration. (This would not be the first time that Howard Dean has created political waves by attacking someone with a similar viewpoint. During the 2003 fights for the 2004 nomination, Dean repeatedly distorted and attacked John Kerry’s position on Iraq despite the fact that the views of the two were virtually identical.)Regardless of Dean’s motivations, there are some real issues here and I would prefer to see actual discussion of the issues rather than dwelling on speculation over his motivation.

If we must attack Democrats (including Lieberman who still caucuses with the Democrats), it should be the Democrats who are really standing in the way of meaningful health care reform. Ezra Klein points out that Joe Lieberman is responsible for much of the mess we are now in:

Joe Lieberman’s reckless decision to blow up last week’s compromise has had exactly the impact many of us predicted. Much of the left has flipped into vicious, angry opposition to the bill. Is that because the Medicare buy-in, a good but limited policy, has disappeared from the bill? Ostensibly. But not really. If you don’t believe the bill has cost controls, Medicare buy-in was not an answer to your concerns. If you believe the mandate is bad policy, letting the small slice of exchange-users between 55 and 64 choose public insurance did not answer your fears.

But progressives had compromised plenty already. Single payer became a strong public option, a strong public option became a weak public option, a weak public option became Medicare buy-in, and Medicare buy-in became Joe Lieberman’s revenge. Progressive ends are submitting to conservative means, and industry is laughing all the way to the bank. All this amid the first year of a president they elected, a Democratic majority they built…

Lieberman has tossed the process into chaos. But the short-term satisfactions won’t overwhelm the long-term judgments. Lieberman is “point person” because he has appointed himself the 60th senator. Every other member of the Democratic caucus could have done the same, but most all have judged the underlying bill more important than their disagreements with it. Lieberman did the opposite, and there’s little evidence that he actually had disagreements with the bill so much as dislike for some of its supporters.

And Lieberman, let’s remember, is not a lefty blogger. He isn’t a pundit or an op-ed columnist. He is the “point man,” and by choice. He bears a special responsibility. Atop the shoulders of another man, it would make for a heavy load. But not his. His recklessness has endangered the bill, and through it, many, many lives. He may not be ashamed. But he should be.

I agree with Klein’s assessment of Lieberman but disagree with his push to maintain the mandate. Dropping the mandate would appease many on the left (as well as center and right) who now oppose the plan. Previously it appeared that the mandate at least made health care reform simpler. Now, instead of simplifying the legislation, among the many other problems with the idea, mandates to purchase private insurance are causing the greatest degree of friction on the left.

There are many other ways that the legislation could be written to provide assistance to those who desire to purchase private insurance while simultaneously providing disincentives to trying to game the system by holding off on purchasing insurance until one becomes ill. Currently the Medicare D program for prescription drugs is voluntary and, while few turn it down, even Medicare B which covers physician services is voluntary.  The bill could provide greater advantages for those who sign up by 2014 which are phased out if people do not enter the system and/or exclusions on pre-existing conditions could be reserved for those who fail to obtain coverage. Obama also should have stuck to his first instincts and maintained the position he held during the primary campaign.

As bad as Lieberman has been during this debate, we must not forget Ben Nelson. Jed Lewison sums up his objections to the plan:

In sum: unless Ben Nelson is bluffing, the only way he will vote for cloture is if abortion is restricted, the subsidies are whacked, the revenue provisions are nuked, and its Medicaid expansion is gutted. Oh, and he doesn’t think there’s any chance of it happening by Christmas.

Compared to this, Dean’s attack on the Senate bill  doesn’t look anywhere near as bad. Even David Axelrod has backed away from calling Dean’s criticism “insane.”

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White House Responds To Howard Dean’s Criticism of Health Care Plan

The White House has been responding to yesterday’s attacks on the watered-down Senate health care reform bill from the left which I also discussed here. David Axelrod appeared on MSNBC:

Axelrod, responding on MSNBC, said: “I have a lot of respect for Governor Dean but he got on the phone with Nancy-Ann DeParle, our point person on the health care issue, went through point by point. She explained why he was wrong. And he simply didn’t want to hear that critique. I saw his piece in The Post this morning, and it is predicated on a bunch of erroneous conclusions.”

Asked his response to progressives who say “kill this bill now,” Axelrod replied: “I think that would be a tragic, tragic outcome. … I guess if you’re hale and hearty and have insurance, it’s fine to say, ‘Kill this bill.’”

Peggy Noonan, the columnist and former Reagan speechwriter, told Axelrod: “On the issue of health care, you are losing the left, you are losing the right, you are losing the center. That looks to me like a political disaster.”

“When you describe what’s in the bill, there’s strong support for it,” Axelrod replied. “We don’t think of the world in terms of left, right and center. We think of the world in terms of small business people, … senior citizens, … Americans who are looking for help on a problem that we’ve been trying to solve for a century.”

The White House Blog has been busy responding, starting with White House Communication Director Dan Pfeiffer:

Recently, a somewhat perplexing new line of argument has emerged about health insurance reform, with some folks suggesting the Senate bill is a “dream” for insurance companies.

If that’s the case, though, it must be news to them. The insurance industry has been leveraging its considerable resources in a ferocious effort to defeat this bill, including producing a report the day before the Senate Finance Committee vote that was so misleading the firm behind it had to walk away from it. And that’s not surprising, because this bill will finally wrest power away from the insurance industry and put it in the hands of American consumers.

  • Among the many provisions to end insurer abuses, lower premiums, and hold insurance companies accountable:
  • Insurance market reforms will prohibit abuses such as denying coverage for pre-existing conditions, charging exorbitant premiums based on gender, age, or health status, dropping coverage when people are sick, and imposing lifetime limits on benefits.
  • Consumer rights will be enhanced by requiring all insurers to provide effective appeals procedures including outside, independent review of appeals
  • New insurance exchanges will reduce premium increases by lowering administrative costs and increasing the leverage of individuals and small businesses in this insurance market.
  • Competition will also be enhanced by providing consumers comparative information on available insurance options giving them the tools to make more informed decisions and drive competition based on value and service.
  • Insurers will be held accountable for excessive overhead costs fueled by unreasonable executive compensation and profits.
  • Insurers will also be required to compete against cost-effective national plans selected by the federal Office of Personnel Management.
  • Wasteful taxpayer overpayments to insurance companies through private Medicare Advantage plans will be eliminated.

Jason Furman, Deputy Director of the National Economic Council, added:

As we move into the final stage of the historic push for health reform, opponents of reform are testing the age old adage that if you only say something enough times you can somehow make it true.  Yesterday, we heard a new version of the old, tired refrain that the health reform bills in Congress would raise taxes on the middle class.

So let’s set the record straight:

  • First, the health insurance reform bill being considered in the Senate does not raise taxes on families making less than $250,000 – in fact it is a substantial net tax cut for American families. The bill being considered represents a substantial net tax cut for middle income families. According to the independent Joint Committee on Taxation, the bill will provide nearly $450 billion in individual income tax cuts over the next 10 years.
  • Second, the excise tax levied on insurance companies for high-premium plans, the so-called “Cadillac tax,” will affect only a small portion of the very highest cost health plans – a total of 3% of premiums in 2013. The vast majority of health plans fall below the thresholds set in the Senate plan and would be completely unaffected by the provision. And those that are above the threshold would only face an excise tax on the generally small portion of the plan that exceeds the threshold. As a result, based on analyses by the Joint Committee on Taxation, only about 3% of premiums will be affected by this provision in 2013. In addition, the Senate plan provides special protections to plans held by workers in high-risk professions – like police and firefighters – as well as by those over 55.
  • Third, for the small sub-set of plans that are affected, the primary impact of this provision will be to increase workers’ wages. Getting a pay raise is not what most people would call a tax increase. Economists agree by taxing the highest cost plans this provision will lead insurance companies to be more efficient and provide quality care to consumers at lower prices (see this endorsement in a letter from a group of prominent economists – including three Nobel laureates and previous members of both Democratic and Republican administrations and this analysis by CBO 2009). Even a report commissioned by the insurance industry’s trade association acknowledged that: “[w]e expect employers to respond to the tax by restructuring their benefits to avoid it.” [PWC, 2009].  As a result, employers will be in a position to increase workers’ take home pay.

Nancy-Ann DeParle, Director of the Office of Health Reform, described the benefits of the measure and the blog also quoted Bill Clinton:

At last, we are close to making real health insurance reform a reality.  We face one critical, final choice, between action and inaction.  We know where the path of inaction leads to: more uninsured Americans, more families struggling to keep up with skyrocketing premiums, higher federal budget deficits, and health costs so much higher than any other country’s they will cripple us economically.  Our only responsible choice is the path of action.

Does this bill read exactly how I would write it? No. Does it contain everything everyone wants?  Of course not. But America can’t afford to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.  And this is a good bill: it increases the security of those who already have insurance and gives every American access to affordable coverage, and contains comprehensive efforts to control costs and improve quality, with more information on best practices, and comparative costs and results. The bill will shift the power away from the insurance companies and into the hands of consumers.

Take it from someone who knows: these chances don’t come around every day.  Allowing this effort to fall short now would be a colossal blunder — both politically for our party and, far more important, for the physical, fiscal, and economic health of our country.”

Ezra Klein also disagrees with Howard Dean’s evaluation of the Senate bill:

What’s so strange about Dean’s objection is that the exchanges in the Senate bill (pdf) do act as “prudent purchasers,” that is to say, they set limits on the plans that can enter in the exchange to ensure that people are getting good choices. The relevant section begins on page 131 of the Senate bill. “The Secretary shall, by regulation, establish criteria for the certification of health plans as qualified health plans.” A couple of pages of relevant criteria follow, including marketing requirements (plans can be disqualified for focusing their marketing in outlets that would bring them uncommonly healthy enrollees), broad provider networks, coverage of options used by low-income folks (community health centers, say), quality measures, quality improvement strategies, consumer ratings, standardized benefit packages, etc.

And then, a couple of pages later, the language gets stronger. On page 143, the exchanges are given power to certify insurance plans based on whether “the Exchange determines that making available such health plan through such Exchange is in the interests of qualified individuals and qualified employers in the State.” On 144, premiums, and premium increases, enter explicitly into the discussion. Any insurance plan that wants to increase premiums has to submit a written justification for their decision. It will have to post that information on its Web site. And if the exchange is not convinced, it can decertify the plan.

Don’t believe me? In his op-ed, Dean names John Kerry as the senator who has been working hardest on this question. This morning, I spoke to Kerry’s staff, who got me a statement from Kerry himself. “The prudent purchasing provisions in the Senate health bill will lower costs and increase affordable options for consumers,” Kerry says. “It’s strong language that will allow the exchange to deliver competitive prices and offer high quality care, and I’m thrilled to see national reform honor the best innovations already succeeding in Massachusetts.”

John Podesta has also made a case similar to the arguments above.

Update: Richard Eskow disagrees with some of the claims from the White House.

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